Synapse loss and dendritic damage correlate with cognitive decline in many neurodegenerative diseases, underlie neurodevelopmental disorders, and are associated with environmental and drug-induced CNS toxicities. However, screening assays designed to measure loss of synaptic connections between live cells are lacking. Here, we describe the design and validation of automated synaptic imaging assay (ASIA), an efficient approach to label, image, and analyze synapses between live neurons. Using viral transduction to express fluorescent proteins that label synapses and an automated computer-controlled microscope, we developed a method to identify agents that regulate synapse number. ASIA is compatible with both confocal and wide-field microscopy; wide-field image acquisition is faster but requires a deconvolution step in the analysis. Both types of images feed into batch processing analysis software that can be run on ImageJ, CellProfiler, and MetaMorph platforms. Primary analysis endpoints are the number of structural synapses and cell viability. Thus, overt cell death is differentiated from subtle changes in synapse density, an important distinction when studying neurodegenerative processes. In rat hippocampal cultures treated for 24 h with 100 μM 2-bromopalmitic acid (2-BP), a compound that prevents clustering of postsynaptic density 95 (PSD95), ASIA reliably detected loss of postsynaptic density 95-enhanced green fluorescent protein (PSD95-eGFP)-labeled synapses in the absence of cell death. In contrast, treatment with 100 μM glutamate produced synapse loss and significant cell death, determined from morphological changes in a binary image created from co-expressed mCherry. Treatment with 3 mM lithium for 24 h significantly increased the number of fluorescent puncta, showing that ASIA also detects synaptogenesis. Proof of concept studies show that cell-specific promoters enable the selective study of inhibitory or principal neurons and that alternative reporter constructs enable quantification of GABAergic or glutamatergic synapses. ASIA can also be used to study synapse loss between human induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC)-derived cortical neurons. Significant synapse loss in the absence of cell death was detected in the iPSC-derived neuronal cultures treated with either 100 μM 2-BP or 100 μM glutamate for 24 h, while 300 μM glutamate produced synapse loss and cell death. ASIA shows promise for identifying agents that evoke synaptic toxicities and screening for compounds that prevent or reverse synapse loss.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
We acknowledge Drs. Megan A. O?Brien, Kelly K. Krogh, and Ralf H. Spindler for work on an early version of the synaptic imaging assay. We thank Ryan Gordon from StemoniX (Maple Grove, MN, USA) for providing the human iPSC-derived cortical-astrocyte co-cultures. All AAV vectors used in this study were generated by the University of Minnesota Viral Vector and Cloning Core (Minneapolis, MN, USA). Funding. This work was supported by National Institutes of Health grants R21/R33 NS087274 (ST and KM), R01 DA07304 (ST), R21 DA044809 (ST) and R01 DC014093 (SY).
- automated microscopy
- human iPSC
- image processing
- synapse loss
- viral transduction