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Front Neuroanat. 2009 Oct 5;3:18. doi: 10.3389/neuro.05.018.2009. eCollection 2009.

Counting Synapses Using FIB/SEM Microscopy: A True Revolution for Ultrastructural Volume Reconstruction.

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Laboratorio de Circuitos Corticales, Centro de Tecnología Biomédica, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid Madrid, Spain.


The advent of transmission electron microscopy (TEM) in the 1950s represented a fundamental step in the study of neuronal circuits. The application of this technique soon led to the realization that the number of synapses changes during the course of normal life, as well as under certain pathological or experimental circumstances. Since then, one of the main goals in neurosciences has been to define simple and accurate methods to estimate the magnitude of these changes. Contrary to analysing single sections, TEM reconstructions are extremely time-consuming and difficult. Therefore, most quantitative studies use stereological methods to define the three-dimensional characteristics of synaptic junctions that are studied in two dimensions. Here, to count the exact number of synapses per unit of volume we have applied a new three-dimensional reconstruction method that involves the combination of focused ion beam milling and scanning electron microscopy (FIB/SEM). We show that the images obtained with FIB/SEM are similar to those obtained with TEM, but with the advantage that FIB/SEM permits serial reconstructions of large volumes of tissue to be generated rapidly and automatically. Furthermore, we compared the estimates of the number of synapses obtained with stereological methods with the values obtained by FIB/SEM reconstructions. We concluded that FIB/SEM not only provides the actual number of synapses per volume but it is also much easier and faster to use than other currently available TEM methods. More importantly, it also avoids most of the errors introduced by stereological methods and overcomes the difficulties associated with these techniques.


3D reconstruction; focused ion beam; quantification; scanning electron microscopy; stereological methods; synapses

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