Check out the most astounding neuroscience images of the year

The very best in brains.
MRI images of the human brain
MRI images of the human brain Chase Sherwell/QBI, Author provided

To understand how the healthy brain works and what occurs in brain disease, neuroscientists use many microscopy techniques, ranging from whole-brain human MRIs to imaging within a single neuron (brain cell), creating stunning images in the process. Here are a selection of the best and brightest produced by scientists at the Queensland Brain Institute at The University of Queensland in 2017.

side view of a mouse embryos brain
Side view of a mouse embryo’s brain Wei ‘Leon’ Luan/QBI

This is a side view of a mouse embryo’s brain. The axons of neurons (dark blue) that release dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in reward and pleasure, grow towards their target brain regions.

As neuroscience becomes increasingly of public interest, researchers are striving to make their findings accessible, with parallels to the pop art movement. These are MRI images of the human brain.

diffusion tensor imaging
diffusion tensor imaging Abdalla Mohamed, PhD student/QBI

This image shows diffusion tensor imaging, an MRI-based neuroimaging technique, revealling the fibre tracts through the corpus callosum in a rodent brain. The corpus callosum links the brain’s left and right hemispheres to each other. The colours represent the different directions that the tracts are travelling through the brain.

Small-scale wonders

The colourful image below shows the nanoscale movements of individual molecules that are critical in mediating communication between neurons. Knowing how these molecules are organised, and how they move, is at the heart of understanding the brain in health and disease.

movements of individual molecules
movements of individual molecules Ravikiran Kasula/QBI
Nanoscopic movements of single actin molecules
Nanoscopic movements of single actin molecules Merja Joensuu/QBI

They may look like fireworks, but this image shows nanoscopic movements of single actin molecules. Actin is an essential protein found in all cells of plants and animals, in this case, a neurosecretory cell, a specialised type of nerve cell that releases message molecules into the blood.

Activity of a single neuron
Activity of a single neuron Lee Fletcher/QBI

This image shows the activity of a single neuron (gold) in the brain region the cortex, recorded after the surrounding neurons (cream) are activated with a flash of light.

Blue neuron
Blue neuron Amandine Grimm/QBI

The blue neuron, which could be a manta ray atop a coral reef, expresses a protein tagged with a fluorescent marker. The pink of surrounding cells is formed from endoplasmic reticulum, a cell structure important for processing and transporting proteins.

Diversity of neurons in a mouse spinal cord
Diversity of neurons in a mouse’s spinal cord Eline van de Ven/QBI

This section of a mouse spinal cord shows a diversity of neuron types. The smaller neurons in pink are involved in pain and the large green neurons are involved in movement.

Neurons in the hippocampus
Neurons in the hippocampus Amandine Grimm/QBI

The organisation of neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region important for learning and memory, looks like a forest in snow. The “snow” is made of cell nuclei, which contain each cell’s genetic material. The “trees” are the neurons’ projections, along which electrical signals travel to enable communication with other cells.

The brain in disease

Tau protein with Alzheimers
Tau protein with Alzheimer’s Adam Briner/QBI

In Alzheimer’s disease, tau protein (gold) becomes toxic as it builds up. It’s hard to believe these mesmerising, gem-like clusters can be so destructive.

A high-grade brain tumour
A high-grade brain tumour Kok-Siong Chen/QBI

Understanding the characteristics of high-grade brain tumours is crucial to finding treatments for disease. High-resolution fluorescent imaging allows us to investigate how the normal brain cells become cancer cells and how they behave. This image demonstrates the infiltration process of the cancer cells (red) into the normal brain tissue (green).

Insights from nature

Studying model organisms including sea creatures, zebrafish, and roundworms provides insight into vision, brain development, and nerve regeneration respectively.

Jewel squid
Jewel squid Wen-Sung Chung/QBI

Deep-sea creatures, including this jewel squid, emit their own light for defence, to attract prey, and even to camouflage. At a depth of 600m, the bioluminescent flashes emitted from the light organs of the jewel squid are deadly attractive to prey.

Mantis shrimp
Mantis shrimp Miriam Henze/QBI

Two retinas are visible in each eye of this mantis shrimp. Mantis shrimp have the most complex visual system in the world; they can see visible and UV light, and can reflect and detect circular polarising light, an extremely rare ability in nature.

Imaging activity in the brains of young zebrafish
Imaging activity in the brains of young zebrafish Rumelo Amor/QBI

These are neurons firing in the brain of a one-week old zebrafish, recorded in 3D using a custom-built microscope and colour-coded for depth. Imaging activity in the brains of young zebrafish could lead to an understanding of how the brain is shaped for function.

C. elegans roundworms
C. elegans roundworms Xue Yan Ho/QBI

A dish of C. elegans roundworms at different stages of their lifecycle. C. elegans is a simple, semi-transparent organism, making it an ideal model for researchers to study the nervous system.

With thanks to QBI graphics designer Dr Nick Valmas, science writer Donna Lu and QBI PhD candidate Abdalla Z Mohamed.
Wei Luan is a Postdoctoral Researcher, Merja Joensuu is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, and Ravi Kiran Kasula is a PhD Student at The University of Queensland. This article was originally featured on The Conversation.

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