Distinction of Neurons, Glia and Endothelial Cells in the Cerebral Cortex: An Algorithm Based on Cytological Features

Front Neuroanat. 2016 Nov 1;10:107. doi: 10.3389/fnana.2016.00107. eCollection 2016.


The estimation of the number or density of neurons and types of glial cells and their relative proportions in different brain areas are at the core of rigorous quantitative neuroanatomical studies. Unfortunately, the lack of detailed, updated, systematic and well-illustrated descriptions of the cytology of neurons and glial cell types, especially in the primate brain, makes such studies especially demanding, often limiting their scope and broad use. Here, following an extensive analysis of histological materials and the review of current and classical literature, we compile a list of precise morphological criteria that can facilitate and standardize identification of cells in stained sections examined under the microscope. We describe systematically and in detail the cytological features of neurons and glial cell types in the cerebral cortex of the macaque monkey and the human using semithin and thick sections stained for Nissl. We used this classical staining technique because it labels all cells in the brain in distinct ways. In addition, we corroborate key distinguishing characteristics of different cell types in sections immunolabeled for specific markers counterstained for Nissl and in ultrathin sections processed for electron microscopy. Finally, we summarize the core features that distinguish each cell type in easy-to-use tables and sketches, and structure these key features in an algorithm that can be used to systematically distinguish cellular types in the cerebral cortex. Moreover, we report high inter-observer algorithm reliability, which is a crucial test for obtaining consistent and reproducible cell counts in unbiased stereological studies. This protocol establishes a consistent framework that can be used to reliably identify and quantify cells in the cerebral cortex of primates as well as other mammalian species in health and disease.

Keywords: astrocytes; heterochromatin; human; microglia; monkey; nucleus; oligodendrocytes; stereology.