Tissue Clearing and Expansion Methods for Imaging Brain Pathology in Neurodegeneration: From Circuits to Synapses and Beyond

Front Neurosci. 2020 Oct 5;14:914. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2020.00914. eCollection 2020.


Studying the structural alterations occurring during diseases of the nervous system requires imaging heterogeneous cell populations at the circuit, cellular and subcellular levels. Recent advancements in brain tissue clearing and expansion methods allow unprecedented detailed imaging of the nervous system through its entire scale, from circuits to synapses, including neurovascular and brain lymphatics elements. Here, we review the state-of-the-art of brain tissue clearing and expansion methods, mentioning their main advantages and limitations, and suggest their parallel implementation for circuits-to-synapses brain imaging using conventional (diffraction-limited) light microscopy -such as confocal, two-photon and light-sheet microscopy- to interrogate the cellular and molecular basis of neurodegenerative diseases. We discuss recent studies in which clearing and expansion methods have been successfully applied to study neuropathological processes in mouse models and postmortem human brain tissue. Volumetric imaging of cleared intact mouse brains and large human brain samples has allowed unbiased assessment of neuropathological hallmarks. In contrast, nanoscale imaging of expanded cells and brain tissue has been used to study the effect of protein aggregates on specific subcellular structures. Therefore, these approaches can be readily applied to study a wide range of brain processes and pathological mechanisms with cellular and subcellular resolution in a time- and cost-efficient manner. We consider that a broader implementation of these technologies is necessary to reveal the full landscape of cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative diseases.

Keywords: expansion microscopy; neurodegeneration; neuropathology; super-resolution microscopy; tissue clearing.

Publication types

  • Review