Research ArticleNeurology

Imaging synaptic density in the living human brain

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Science Translational Medicine  20 Jul 2016:
Vol. 8, Issue 348, pp. 348ra96
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aaf6667

Seeing synapses

When synapses “fire,” information is transmitted from one neuron to another. Although many neurological and psychiatric diseases are characterized by misfiring synapses, there is currently no way to visualize healthy or aberrant neuronal connections in the living brain—tissues would need to be sampled, which is an invasive and often unwanted procedure. Finnema and colleagues developed a noninvasive approach to “see” human synapses by using an imaging agent that targets the synaptic vesicle glycoprotein 2A (SV2A). PET imaging allowed the authors to visualize synaptic density in both healthy and epileptic human brains in living patients. In the brains with epilepsy, synaptic density was asymmetric—consistent with damage to certain brain regions. This method opens doors to routine monitoring of the brain in patients with various neurological diseases, where synaptic loss or dynamic changes in density could provide clues to prognosis.


Chemical synapses are the predominant neuron-to-neuron contact in the central nervous system. Presynaptic boutons of neurons contain hundreds of vesicles filled with neurotransmitters, the diffusible signaling chemicals. Changes in the number of synapses are associated with numerous brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy. However, all current approaches for measuring synaptic density in humans require brain tissue from autopsy or surgical resection. We report the use of the synaptic vesicle glycoprotein 2A (SV2A) radioligand [11C]UCB-J combined with positron emission tomography (PET) to quantify synaptic density in the living human brain. Validation studies in a baboon confirmed that SV2A is an alternative synaptic density marker to synaptophysin. First-in-human PET studies demonstrated that [11C]UCB-J had excellent imaging properties. Finally, we confirmed that PET imaging of SV2A was sensitive to synaptic loss in patients with temporal lobe epilepsy. Thus, [11C]UCB-J PET imaging is a promising approach for in vivo quantification of synaptic density with several potential applications in diagnosis and therapeutic monitoring of neurological and psychiatric disorders.

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