Interpreting in vivo calcium signals from neuronal cell bodies, axons, and dendrites: a review

Neurophotonics. 2020 Jan;7(1):011402. doi: 10.1117/1.NPh.7.1.011402. Epub 2019 Jul 30.


Calcium imaging is emerging as a popular technique in neuroscience. A major reason is that intracellular calcium transients are reflections of electrical events in neurons. For example, calcium influx in the soma and axonal boutons accompanies spiking activity, whereas elevations in dendrites and dendritic spines are associated with synaptic inputs and local regenerative events. However, calcium transients have complex spatiotemporal dynamics, and since most optical methods visualize only one of the somatic, axonal, and dendritic compartments, a straightforward inference of the underlying electrical event is typically challenging. We highlight experiments that have directly calibrated in vivo calcium signals recorded using fluorescent indicators against electrophysiological events. We address commonly asked questions such as: Can calcium imaging be used to characterize neurons with high firing rates? Can the fluorescent signal report a decrease in spiking activity? What is the evidence that calcium transients in subcellular compartments correspond to distinct presynaptic axonal and postsynaptic dendritic events? By reviewing the empirical evidence and limitations, we suggest that, despite some caveats, calcium imaging is a versatile method to characterize a variety of neuronal events in vivo.

Keywords: calcium imaging; calibration; fluorescence; neuron; two-photon microscopy.

Publication types

  • Review