Quantitative investigations of axonal and dendritic arbors: development, structure, function, and pathology

Neuroscientist. 2015 Jun;21(3):241-54. doi: 10.1177/1073858414540216. Epub 2014 Jun 27.


The branching structures of neurons are a long-standing focus of neuroscience. Axonal and dendritic morphology affect synaptic signaling, integration, and connectivity, and their diversity reflects the computational specialization of neural circuits. Altered neuronal morphology accompanies functional changes during development, experience, aging, and disease. Technological improvements continuously accelerate high-throughput tissue processing, image acquisition, and morphological reconstruction. Digital reconstructions of neuronal morphologies allow for complex quantitative analyses that are unattainable from raw images or two-dimensional tracings. Furthermore, digitized morphologies enable computational modeling of biophysically realistic neuronal dynamics. Additionally, reconstructions generated to address specific scientific questions have the potential for continued investigations beyond the original reason for their acquisition. Facilitating multiple reuse are repositories like NeuroMorpho.Org, which ease the sharing of reconstructions. Here, we review selected scientific literature reporting the reconstruction of axonal or dendritic morphology with diverse goals including establishment of neuronal identity, examination of physiological properties, and quantification of developmental or pathological changes. These reconstructions, deposited in NeuroMorpho.Org, have since been used by other investigators in additional research, of which we highlight representative examples. This cycle of data generation, analysis, sharing, and reuse reveals the vast potential of digital reconstructions in quantitative investigations of neuronal morphology.

Keywords: data sharing; database; neuron morphology; quantitative analysis; three-dimensional reconstructions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / physiology
  • Brain / cytology*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Databases as Topic*
  • Dendrites / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted*
  • Information Dissemination
  • Neurons / cytology*
  • Neurons / pathology