Imaging of the islet neural network

Diabetes Obes Metab. 2014 Sep;16 Suppl 1:77-86. doi: 10.1111/dom.12342.


The islets of Langerhans receive signals from the circulation and nerves to modulate hormone secretion in response to physiological cues. Although the rich islet innervation has been documented in the literature dating as far back as Paul Langerhans' discovery of islets in the pancreas, it remains a challenging task for researchers to acquire detailed islet innervation patterns in health and disease due to the dispersed nature of the islet neurovascular network. In this article, we discuss the recent development of 3-dimensional (3D) islet neurohistology, in which transparent pancreatic specimens were prepared by optical clearing to visualize the islet microstructure, vasculature and innervation with deep-tissue microscopy. Mouse islets were used as an example to illustrate how to apply this 3D imaging approach to characterize (i) the islet parasympathetic innervation, (ii) the islet sympathetic innervation and its reinnervation after transplantation under the kidney capsule and (iii) the reactive cellular response of the Schwann cell network in islet injury. While presenting and characterizing the innervation patterns, we also discuss how to apply the signals derived from transmitted light microscopy, vessel painting and immunostaining of neural markers to verify the location and source of tissue information. In summary, the systematic development of tissue labelling, clearing and imaging methods to reveal the islet neuroanatomy offers insights to help study the neural-islet regulatory mechanisms and the role of neural tissue remodelling in the development of diabetes.

Keywords: 3D microscopy; Schwann cell network; graft innervation; islet graft; neurohistology; optical clearing; parasympathetic nerves; sympathetic nerves.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / metabolism
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / pathology
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / therapy
  • Ganglia / anatomy & histology
  • Ganglia / cytology
  • Ganglia / metabolism
  • Ganglia / pathology
  • Gliosis / metabolism
  • Gliosis / pathology
  • Imaging, Three-Dimensional
  • Islets of Langerhans / anatomy & histology
  • Islets of Langerhans / blood supply
  • Islets of Langerhans / innervation*
  • Islets of Langerhans / pathology
  • Islets of Langerhans Transplantation / pathology
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred NOD
  • Microvessels / anatomy & histology
  • Microvessels / innervation
  • Microvessels / metabolism
  • Microvessels / pathology
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Nerve Net / anatomy & histology*
  • Nerve Net / cytology
  • Nerve Net / metabolism
  • Nerve Net / pathology
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins / metabolism
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / anatomy & histology*
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / cytology
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / metabolism
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / pathology
  • Schwann Cells / cytology
  • Schwann Cells / metabolism
  • Schwann Cells / pathology
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / anatomy & histology*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / cytology
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / metabolism
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / pathology
  • Transplantation, Heterotopic


  • Biomarkers
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins