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FIB/SEM Technology and Alzheimer's Disease: Three-Dimensional Analysis of Human Cortical Synapses


The quantification and measurement of synapses is a major goal in the study of brain organization in both health and disease. Serial section electron microscopy (EM) is the ideal method since it permits the direct quantification of crucial features such as the number of synapses per unit volume or the distribution and size of synapses. However, a major limitation is that obtaining long series of ultrathin sections is extremely time-consuming and difficult. Consequently, quantitative EM studies are scarce and the most common method employed to estimate synaptic density in the human brain is indirect, by counting at the light microscopic level immunoreactive puncta using synaptic markers. The recent development of automatic EM methods in experimental animals, such as the combination of focused ion beam milling and scanning electron microscopy (FIB/SEM), are opening new avenues. Here we explored the utility of FIB/SEM to examine the cerebral cortex of Alzheimer's disease patients. We found that FIB/SEM is an excellent tool to study in detail the ultrastructure and alterations of the synaptic organization of the human brain. Using this technology, it is possible to reconstruct different types of plaques and the surrounding neuropil to find new aspects of the pathological process associated with the disease, namely; to count the exact number and types of synapses in different regions of the plaques, to study the spatial distribution of synapses, and to analyze the morphology and nature of the various types of dystrophic neurites and amyloid deposits.