The RGB marking technique allows scientists to follow neurons at the individual cell level.
Image credit: Southampton University
In the journal Scientific Reports, researchers led by the University of Southampton in the UK describe how they developed and tested the technique in cell cultures and mice.
The human brain is a complex organ comprising billions of cells. A marking technique that tracks individual cells over space and time would be a great help to brain researchers so they can manipulate and distinguish activity at the level of single cells.
The new technique - called multicolor RGB tracking - allows scientists to encode individual cells with unique heritable color markers generated by a random mix of red, green and blue.
Once a cell is encoded, the unique color marker is embedded permanently in its DNA and also passes on to its daughter cells.
The aim is to help neuroscientists see what is happening at the cell level
Lead researcher Dr. Diego Gomez-Nicola, of Southampton's Centre for Biological Sciences, explains that their aim is to improve neuroscience research so scientists can track cell clones and see what is going on at the level of individual cells:
"With this technique, we have proved the effective spatial and temporal tracking of neural cells, as well as the analysis of cell progeny."
The marking is done by injecting the brain with a solution containing three viral vectors - each producing a fluorescent protein in one of the three colors.
Each brain cell reacts slightly differently to the viruses containing the colored proteins to acquire its own unique RGB color watermark. In this way, cells that were previously indistinguishable become uniquely visible.
Dr. Gomez-Nicola says he and his colleagues believe multicolor RGB tracking will make a big difference to how neuroscientists around the world design their experiments.
"It will allow them to answer questions they were unable to tackle before and contribute to the progress of understanding how our brain works," he adds.
Next step is to manipulate cell biology by changing gene expression
The team now plans to experiment with changing the biology of cells by modifying their genes using the RGB vectors.
In the same way that the RGB marking technique makes cells express the fluorescent proteins, it can change the expression of selected genes. Such a development would help advance gene-therapy approaches to treating disease.
The study was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), the EU and Wessex Medical Research.
Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently learned how scientists have found a way to restore lost memories in patients with early Alzheimer's disease. The technique encourages the nervous system to regenerate damaged connections between brain cells.