BACKGROUND: Abnormal connectivity across brain regions underlies many neurological disorders including multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia and autism, possibly due to atypical axonal organization within white matter. Attempts at investigating axonal organization on post-mortem human brains have been hindered by the availability of high-quality, morphologically preserved tissue, particularly for neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. Brains are generally stored in a fixative for long periods of time (often greater than 10 years) and in many cases, already frozen and sectioned on a microtome for histology and immunohistochemistry. Here we present a method to assess the quality and quantity of axons from long-term fixed and frozen-sectioned human brain samples to demonstrate their use for electron microscopy (EM) measures of axonal ultrastructure.
RESULTS: Six samples were collected from white matter below the superior temporal cortex of three typically developing human brains and prepared for EM analyses. Five samples were stored in fixative for over 10 years, two of which were also flash frozen and sectioned on a freezing microtome, and one additional case was fixed for 3 years and sectioned on a freezing microtome. In all six samples, ultrastructural qualitative and quantitative analyses demonstrate that myelinated axons can be identified and counted on the EM images. Although axon density differed between brains, axonal ultrastructure and density was well preserved and did not differ within cases for fixed and frozen tissue. There was no significant difference between cases in axon myelin sheath thickness (g-ratio) or axon diameter; approximately 70% of axons were in the small (0.25 μm) to medium (0.75 μm) range. Axon diameter and g-ratio were positively correlated, indicating that larger axons may have thinner myelin sheaths.
CONCLUSION: The current study demonstrates that long term formalin fixed and frozen-sectioned human brain tissue can be used for ultrastructural analyses. Axon integrity is well preserved and can be quantified using the methods presented here. The ability to carry out EM on frozen sections allows for investigation of axonal organization in conjunction with other cellular and histological methods, such as immunohistochemistry and stereology, within the same brain and even within the same frozen cut section.
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