You’ve Never Seen Nerve Endings Like These

Scientists produce the most detailed images of nerve endings ever made

Complexly branching nerve endings (red) under the skin. Photo: EMBL/S. Morley
Bundles of nerves that relay information collected by touch sensors on the skin to the mouse's spinal chord and brain. Photo: EMBL/L. Castaldi
Nerve endings (red) form "baskets" at the base of individual hair follicles (blue). Photo: EMBL/L. Castaldi
An example of the murky resolution that previous methods produced. Photo: EMBL/R. Dhandapani
The SNAP-tagging method produces a much clearer image of the nerves. Photo: EMBL/F.C. Reis

European scientists just released the most detailed images of nerves ever produced, the Verge reports. To make them, the team turned to technique called SNAP-tagging, which allowed them to assign fluorescent color to individual structures in mice nerves, touch receptors and hair follicles.

"It's seeing things we've never seen before," senior author Paul Heppenstall told the Verge. "Things we've imagined were there but that we've not been able to see. Its high definition: making these elements stand out clear against the background."

In addition to being cool art, the images are useful because skin samples are difficult to analyze microscopically—they are impermeable and have their own convoluting background fluorescence, the researchers explained to the Verge. SNAP-tagging, on the other hand, uses proteins produced by genetically engineered mice. The proteins bind to tiny traces of dye that are small enough to cross the skin's interface, the Verge writes. Eventually, this method could allow researchers to see the nervous system in action. 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.