Comparative evaluation of synaptophysin-based methods for quantification of synapses

Michael E. Calhoun, Mathias Jucker, Lee J. Martin, Gopal Thinakaran, Donald L. Price, Peter R. Mouton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Development, ageing, and a variety of neurological disorders are characterized by selective alterations in specific populations of nerve cells which are, in turn, associated with changes in the numbers of synapses in the target fields of these neurons. To begin to delineate the significance of changes in synapses in development, ageing, and disease, it is first essential to quantify the number of synapses in defined regions of the CNS. In the past, investigators have used EM methods to assess synapse numbers or density, but these approaches are costly, labour intensive, and technically difficult, particularly in autopsy material. To begin to define reliable strategies useful for studies of both animals and humans, we used three techniques to measure synaptophysin-immunoreactivity in rat brain. The levels of synaptophysin protein were determined by Western blots of five hippocampal subregions; the intensity of synaptophysin-immunoreactivity in dentate gyrus and stratum oriens was determined by optical densitometry of immunocytochemically stained sections; and the total number of synaptophysin-immunoreactivity presynaptic boutons in dentate gyrus and stratum oriens was assessed by unbiased stereology. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. Western blotting is the least time-consuming of the three methods and allows simultaneous processing of multiple samples. In systematically sampled histological sections, both densitometry and stereology allow precise definition of the region of interest, and the stereological optical disector method allows quantitation of the numbers of synaptophysin-immunoreactive boutons. Stereology was the only method that clearly demonstrated greater synaptophysin-immunoreactivity in the dentate gyrus as compared to stratum oriens. The use of systematic sampling and the disector technique offer a high degree of anatomical resolution (lacking in Western blot methods) and has quantitative advantage over the greyscale-based density approach. Thus, at present, stereology is the most useful method for estimating synaptic numbers in defined regions of the brain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)821-828
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Neurocytology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1996

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Histology
  • Cell Biology


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