Genetic Reporters of Neuronal Activity: c-Fos and G-CaMP6

Methods Enzymol. 2018;603:197-220. doi: 10.1016/bs.mie.2018.01.023. Epub 2018 Mar 8.


The majority of 20th century investigations into anesthetic effects on the nervous system have used electrophysiology. Yet some fundamental limitations to electrophysiologic recordings, including the invasiveness of the technique, the need to place (potentially several) electrodes in every site of interest, and the difficulty of selectively recording from individual cell types, have driven the development of alternative methods for detecting neuronal activation. Two such alternative methods with cellular scale resolution have matured in the last few decades and will be reviewed here: the transcription of immediate early genes, foremost c-fos, and the influx of calcium into neurons as reported by genetically encoded calcium indicators, foremost GCaMP6. Reporters of c-fos allow detection of transcriptional activation even in deep or distant nuclei, without requiring the accurate targeting of multiple electrodes at long distances. The temporal resolution of c-fos is limited due to its dependence upon the detection of transcriptional activation through immunohistochemical assays, though the development of RT-PCR probes has shifted the temporal resolution of the assay when tissues of interest can be isolated. GCaMP6 has several isoforms that trade-off temporal resolution for signal to noise, but the fastest are capable of resolving individual action potential events, provided the microscope used scans quickly enough. GCaMP6 expression can be selectively targeted to neuronal populations of interest, and potentially thousands of neurons can be captured within a single frame, allowing the neuron-by-neuron reporting of circuit dynamics on a scale that is difficult to capture with electrophysiology, as long as the populations are optically accessible.

Keywords: GCaMP6; Genetically encoded calcium indicators; Immediate early genes; Neuronal activation; c-Fos.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / drug effects
  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Anesthetics, General / chemical synthesis
  • Anesthetics, General / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / physiology
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Calcium-Calmodulin-Dependent Protein Kinases / genetics*
  • Calcium-Calmodulin-Dependent Protein Kinases / metabolism
  • Electroencephalography
  • Genes, Immediate-Early
  • Genes, Reporter
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / genetics*
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / chemical synthesis
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / pharmacology*
  • Mice
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence / methods
  • Nerve Net / cytology
  • Nerve Net / drug effects
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos / genetics*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Signal Transduction
  • Signal-To-Noise Ratio
  • Transcriptional Activation


  • Anesthetics, General
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins
  • Calcium-Calmodulin-Dependent Protein Kinases
  • Calcium