In the News

Ellisman presents NCMIR research to Japanese Royals


September 2006

At the invitation of Japan’s Emperor Akihito, Mark Ellisman presented an overview of NCMIR’s research on multi-scale imaging and multi-scale modeling of the nervous system. Ellisman presented a multimedia poster and summarized research advances made possible by an alliance of leading researchers in biology and brain research, as well as advanced computing technologies. View the complete CalIT2 press release with video clips.

The event occurred on the occasion of the 16th International Microscopy Congress in Sapporo, Japan. The six-day congress continues through 8-September at the Sapporo Convention Center.

“This honor has particular resonance for me because we have collaborated with scientific groups and companies in Japan for over twenty years,” said Ellisman. “Our joint work with advanced 3D electron microscopy is helping us to understand the normal and abnormal structure and function of the nervous system. There are no modern high-voltage electron microscopes available to us for basic biological and biomedical research in the United States. We are very thankful to the Japanese government for enabling our access to these high-powered instruments for collaborative projects.”

In his presentation to the Emperor, Ellisman stressed the value of observing the brain at multiple scales—from the very large (gross anatomical) to the very small (molecular) level. Visualizing data at multiple scales allows for insights that are just not possible if you only look at one image.

Osaka Telemicroscopy

In Sapporo, Ellisman detailed three ‘multi-scale’ research projects showcasing advances in high-energy electron microscopy and electron tomography. All three projects are based in organizations that Ellisman directs, including the UCSD-based National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research (NCMIR), and the Biomedical Informatics Research Network Coordinating Center, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center for Research Resources.

 brain mosaic

Using electron tomography, for example, Ellisman and his team were able to determine the precise geometry of synapse structures—leading to simulations of physiology that are lending to new insights into scientists’ fundamental understanding of how neurons communicate. A summary of this study, published in the journal Science (Coggan et. al. 2005), is detailed on the NCMIR Web site.

Collaborating with Kiyoshi Hama of Japan’s National Institute for Physiological Sciences (NIPS), and with support from NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the NCMIR team used correlated light microscopy and high-energy electron microscopy to observe astrocytes—star-shaped cells that are the largest and most numerous of the glial (supporting) cells in the brain. Their research confirmed that astrocytes tile into unique domains, instead of overlapping and interdigitating. “That finding corrected a fundamental misconception about the way astrocytes are organized in the brain,” noted Ellisman. Research highlights summarizing this effort are posted on the NCMIR Web site.


NCMIR also developed tools that allow researchers to switch from viewing whole 3D cells under the light microscope to viewing electron microscopy of photo-oxidized 3D cells. Adding electron tomography capabilities to Japan’s largest high-voltage electron microscope allowed Ellisman’s team to look through very thick sections (5-10um) and obtain very accurate views of dendritic spines—the bottle brush-like protrusions of neuronal dendrites that receive 90 percent of the synaptic connections in the mammalian brain


Apart from his presentation to Emperor Akihito, Ellisman is also scheduled to deliver a presentation on remote electron microscopy to the International Microscopy Congress, detailing some of NCMIR’s work with partners in Japan to pioneer interactive telemicroscopy—the remote control and automation of high-energy electron microscopes.

“Professor Ellisman has pursued an intensely interdisciplinary approach to answering open questions about the brain’s function and structure,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Marye Anne Fox. “The honor bestowed by the Emperor of Japan is also in recognition of Dr. Ellisman’s and UCSD’s track record of reaching out to foreign partners.”

* “Multi-scale Imaging and Multi-scale Modeling of the Nervous System Using 3D Views of the Brain Obtained with High Energy Electron Microscopy,” IMC 16th International Microscopy Conference, Sapporo, Japan. September 2006.