Alterations in Sub-Axonal Architecture Between Normal Aging and Parkinson’s Diseased Human Brains Using Label-Free Cryogenic X-ray Nanotomography


Gaining insight to pathologically relevant processes in continuous volumes of unstained brain tissue is important for a better understanding of neurological diseases. Many pathological processes in neurodegenerative disorders affect myelinated axons, which are a critical part of the neuronal circuitry. Cryo ptychographic X-ray computed tomography in the multi-keV energy range is an emerging technology providing phase contrast at high sensitivity, allowing label-free and non-destructive three dimensional imaging of large continuous volumes of tissue, currently spanning up to 400,000 μm3. This aspect makes the technique especially attractive for imaging complex biological material, especially neuronal tissues, in combination with downstream optical or electron microscopy techniques. A further advantage is that dehydration, additional contrast staining, and destructive sectioning/milling are not required for imaging. We have developed a pipeline for cryo ptychographic X-ray tomography of relatively large, hydrated and unstained biological tissue volumes beyond what is typical for the X-ray imaging, using human brain tissue and combining the technique with complementary methods. We present four imaged volumes of a Parkinson’s diseased human brain and five volumes from a non-diseased control human brain using cryo ptychographic X-ray tomography. In both cases, we distinguish neuromelanin-containing neurons, lipid and melanic pigment, blood vessels and red blood cells, and nuclei of other brain cells. In the diseased sample, we observed several swellings containing dense granular material resembling clustered vesicles between the myelin sheaths arising from the cytoplasm of the parent oligodendrocyte, rather than the axoplasm. We further investigated the pathological relevance of such swollen axons in adjacent tissue sections by immunofluorescence microscopy for phosphorylated alpha-synuclein combined with multispectral imaging. Since cryo ptychographic X-ray tomography is non-destructive, the large dataset volumes were used to guide further investigation of such swollen axons by correlative electron microscopy and immunogold labeling post X-ray imaging, a possibility demonstrated for the first time. Interestingly, we find that protein antigenicity and ultrastructure of the tissue are preserved after the X-ray measurement. As many pathological processes in neurodegeneration affect myelinated axons, our work sets an unprecedented foundation for studies addressing axonal integrity and disease-related changes in unstained brain tissues.


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