Bioethics Blogs

Snapshots of Life: Neurons in a New Light

Credit: Michael Shribak, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA

Birds do it, bees do it, and even educated fleas do it. No, not fall in love, as the late Ella Fitzgerald so famously sang. Birds and insects can see polarized light—that is, light waves transmitted in a single directional plane—in ways that provides them with a far more colorful and detailed view of the world than is possible with the human eye.

Still, thanks to innovations in microscope technology, scientists have been able to tap into the power of polarized light vision to explore the inner workings of many complex biological systems, including the brain. In this image, researchers used a recently developed polarized light microscope to trace the spatial orientation of neurons in a thin section of the mouse midbrain. Neurons that stretch horizontally appear green, while those oriented at a 45-degree angle are pinkish-red and those at 225 degrees are purplish-blue. What’s amazing is that these colors don’t involve staining or tagging the cells with fluorescent markers: the colors are generated strictly from the light interacting with the physical orientation of each neuron.

How is this possible? It requires thinking a little differently about polarized light, which means getting into a bit of physics. A traditional polarized light microscope depends on the optical path difference between two polarization components of light to generate color. That is, as two beams of light pass through an object, they travel at different speeds, which throws them out of phase. If they recombine in a certain way, the waves generate color.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.