The structure of dendritic spines determines synaptic efficacy, a plastic process that mediates information processing in the vertebrate nervous system. Aberrant spine morphology, including alterations in shape, size, and number, are common in different brain diseases. Because of this, accurate and unbiased characterization of dendritic spine structure is vital to our ability to explore and understand their involvement in neuronal development, synaptic plasticity, and synaptic failure in neurological diseases. Investigators have attempted to elucidate the precise structure and function of dendritic spines for more than a hundred years, but their fundamental role in synaptic plasticity and neurological diseases remains elusive. Limitations and ambiguities in imaging techniques have exacerbated the challenges of acquiring accurate information about spines and spine features. However, recent advancements in molecular biology, protein engineering, immuno-labeling techniques, and the use of super-resolution nano-microscopy along with powerful image analysis software have provided a better understanding of dendritic spine architecture. Here we describe the pros and cons of the classical staining techniques used to study spine morphology, and the alteration of dendritic spines in various neuropathological conditions. Finally, we highlight recent advances in super-resolved nanoscale microscopy, and their potentials and pitfalls when used to explore dendritic spine dynamics.
Keywords: Dendritic spine; Fluorescent labeling; Golgi stain; Protein engineering; Super resolved optical microscopes; Synaptic plasticity.
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