Recent advances in computational methods for measurement of dendritic spines imaged by light microscopy

Microscopy (Oxf). 2020 Jul 30;69(4):196-213. doi: 10.1093/jmicro/dfaa016.


Dendritic spines are small protrusions that receive most of the excitatory inputs to the pyramidal neurons in the neocortex and the hippocampus. Excitatory neural circuits in the neocortex and hippocampus are important for experience-dependent changes in brain functions, including postnatal sensory refinement and memory formation. Several lines of evidence indicate that synaptic efficacy is correlated with spine size and structure. Hence, precise and accurate measurement of spine morphology is important for evaluation of neural circuit function and plasticity. Recent advances in light microscopy and image analysis techniques have opened the way toward a full description of spine nanostructure. In addition, large datasets of spine nanostructure can be effectively analyzed using machine learning techniques and other mathematical approaches, and recent advances in super-resolution imaging allow researchers to analyze spine structure at an unprecedented level of precision. This review summarizes computational methods that can effectively identify, segment and quantitate dendritic spines in either 2D or 3D imaging. Nanoscale analysis of spine structure and dynamics, combined with new mathematical approaches, will facilitate our understanding of spine functions in physiological and pathological conditions.

Keywords: computational analysis; dendritic spine; machine learning; structured illumination microscopy; super-resolution microscopy; synapse.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Automation, Laboratory
  • Dendritic Spines / pathology
  • Dendritic Spines / physiology*
  • Dendritic Spines / ultrastructure*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted*
  • Machine Learning
  • Microscopy / methods*
  • Neuronal Plasticity