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Pyramidal neurons

Michael Häusser and Hermann Cuntz, UCL

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This computer simulated image shows synthetic pyramidal neurons, of optimised size, shape and connectivity, that are indistinguishable from those found in the real biological brain. Pyramidal cells are so-called as they have a pyramid-shaped cell body (soma), and are also characterised by long branching dendrites. They are found in the forebrain (cortex and hippocampus) of mammals and are thought to be involved in cognitive function.

What does this show?

Neurons (the individual cells of the brain) have been studied for over a century in an attempt to understand more about how our brains work. What they look like has long been established but how they develop and details of their shape and connectivity are still to be determined. Studies demonstrate that there is an optimal way for neurons to be constructed.

Using computer software, scientists can generate highly realistic neuronal structures based on reconstructions from microscopy image stacks and inferred biological principles. A number of such synthetic neurons are shown here, each one assigned a different colour to allow for the individual neuronal structures to be easily distinguished..

Why was this image created?

Understanding neurons' shapes and how they connect with each other is essential to understanding their function. Over a century ago, neuroanatomist Ramón y Cajal described three laws of neuronal architecture based on physical and biological constraints. Today, we can use sophisticated computer algorithms to apply these principles, to test theories and to learn more about neuronal architecture.

The TREES toolbox is the computer program used to create this image. It constructs synthetic neurons based on biological principles. These neurons can be manipulated and viewed in a number of different ways (impossible with real neurons), allowing scientists to unravel the complex controls governing how axons and dendrites branch. Software such as this is a useful tool in understanding how individual neurons are constructed and connected. This gives an insight into their function, which is crucial to understanding what goes wrong in many neurological disorders.