Voltage-sensitive dye

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Voltage-sensitive dyes, also known as potentiometric dyes, are dyes which change their spectral properties in response to voltage changes. They are able to provide linear measurements of firing activity of single neurons, large neuronal populations or activity of myocytes. Many physiological processes are accompanied by changes in cell membrane potential which can be detected with voltage sensitive dyes. Measurements may indicate the site of action potential origin, and measurements of action potential velocity and direction may be obtained. [1]


Potentiometric dyes are used to monitor the electrical activity inside cell organelles where it is not possible to insert an electrode, such as the mitochondria and Dendritic spine. This technology is especially powerful for the study of patterns of activity in complex multicellular preparations. It also makes possible the measurement of spatial and temporal variations in membrane potential along the surface of single cells.

Types of dyes

Fast-response probes: These are amphiphilic membrane staining dyes which usually have a pair of hydrocarbon chains acting as membrane anchors and a hydrophilic group which aligns the chromophore perpendicular to the membrane/aqueous interface. The chromophore is believed to undergo a large electronic charge shift as a result of excitation from the ground to the excited state and this underlies the putative electrochromic mechanism for the sensitivity of these dyes to membrane potential. This molecule (dye) intercalates among the lipophilic part of biological membranes. This orientation assures that the excitation induced charge redistribution will occur parallel to the electric field within the membrane. A change in the voltage across the membrane will therefore cause a spectral shift resulting from a direct interaction between the field and the ground and excited state dipole moments.

New voltage dyes can sense voltage with high speed and sensitivity using photoinduced electron transfer (PeT) through a conjugated molecular wire. [2] [3]

Slow-response probes: These exhibit potential-dependent changes in their transmembrane distribution which are accompanied by a fluoresence change. Typical slow-response probes include cationic carbocyanines and rhodamines, and ionic oxonols.


Commonly used voltage sensitive dyes are substituted aminonaphthylethenylpyridinium (ANEP) dyes, such as di-4-ANEPPS, di-8-ANEPPS, and RH237. Depending on their chemical modifications which change their physical properties they are used for different experimental procedures. [4] They were first described in 1985 by the research group of Leslie Loew. [5] ANNINE-6plus is the latest voltage sensitive dye with fast response (ns response time) and high voltage sensitivity. It has been applied to measure the action potentials of a single t-tubule of cardiomyocytes by Guixue Bu et al. [6] A recent computational study confirmed that the ANEP dyes are affected only by the electrostatic environment and not by specific molecular interactions. [7]


The core material for imaging brain activity with voltage-sensitive dyes are the dyes themselves. These voltage-sensitive dyes are lipophilic and preferably localized in membranes with their hydrophobic tails. They are used in applications involving fluorescence or absorption; they are fast acting and are able to provide linear measurements of changes in membrane potential. [8]

A variety of specialized equipment may be used in conjunction with the dyes, and choices in equipment will vary according to the particularities of a preparation. Essentially, equipment will include specialized microscopes and imaging devices, and may include technical lamps or lasers. [8]

Strengths and weaknesses

Strengths of imaging brain activity with voltage-sensitive dyes include the following abilities:

Weaknesses of imaging brain activity with voltage-sensitive dyes include the following problems:


Voltage-sensitive dyes have been used to measure neural activity in several areas of the nervous system in a variety of organisms, including the squid giant axon, [9] whisker barrels of the rat somatosensory cortex, [10] [11] olfactory bulb of the salamander, [12] [13] [14] visual cortex of the cat, [15] optic tectum of the frog, [16] and the visual cortex of the rhesus monkey. [17] [18]

Related Research Articles

Electrophysiology Study of the electrical properties of biological cells and tissues.

Electrophysiology is the branch of physiology that studies the electrical properties of biological cells and tissues. It involves measurements of voltage changes or electric current or manipulations on a wide variety of scales from single ion channel proteins to whole organs like the heart. In neuroscience, it includes measurements of the electrical activity of neurons, and, in particular, action potential activity. Recordings of large-scale electric signals from the nervous system, such as electroencephalography, may also be referred to as electrophysiological recordings. They are useful for electrodiagnosis and monitoring.

Action potential Process by which neurons communicate with each other by changes in their membrane potentials

In physiology, an action potential (AP) occurs when the membrane potential of a specific cell location rapidly rises and falls: this depolarization then causes adjacent locations to similarly depolarize. Action potentials occur in several types of animal cells, called excitable cells, which include neurons, muscle cells, endocrine cells, glomus cells, and in some plant cells.

Electrical synapse Type of connection between neurons

An electrical synapse is a mechanical and electrically conductive link between two neighboring neurons that is formed at a narrow gap between the pre- and postsynaptic neurons known as a gap junction. At gap junctions, such cells approach within about 3.8 nm of each other, a much shorter distance than the 20- to 40-nanometer distance that separates cells at chemical synapse. In many animals, electrical synapse-based systems co-exist with chemical synapses.

Stimulus (physiology)

In physiology, a stimulus is a detectable change in the physical or chemical structure of an organism's internal or external environment. The ability of an organism or organ to detect external stimuli, so that an appropriate reaction can be made, is called sensitivity. Sensory receptors can receive information from outside the body, as in touch receptors found in the skin or light receptors in the eye, as well as from inside the body, as in chemoreceptors and mechanoreceptors. When a stimulus is detected by a sensory receptor, it can elicit a reflex via stimulus transduction. An internal stimulus is often the first component of a homeostatic control system. External stimuli are capable of producing systemic responses throughout the body, as in the fight-or-flight response. In order for a stimulus to be detected with high probability, its level of strength must exceed the absolute threshold; if a signal does reach threshold, the information is transmitted to the central nervous system (CNS), where it is integrated and a decision on how to react is made. Although stimuli commonly cause the body to respond, it is the CNS that finally determines whether a signal causes a reaction or not.

Behavioral neuroscience, also known as biological psychology, biopsychology, or psychobiology, is the application of the principles of biology to the study of physiological, genetic, and developmental mechanisms of behavior in humans and other animals.

Pyramidal cell

Pyramidal cells, or pyramidal neurons, are a type of multipolar neuron found in areas of the brain including the cerebral cortex, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. Pyramidal neurons are the primary excitation units of the mammalian prefrontal cortex and the corticospinal tract. Pyramidal neurons are also one of two cell types where the characteristic sign, Negri bodies, are found in post-mortem rabies infection. Pyramidal neurons were first discovered and studied by Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Since then, studies on pyramidal neurons have focused on topics ranging from neuroplasticity to cognition.

An apical dendrite is a dendrite that emerges from the apex of a pyramidal cell. Apical dendrites are one of two primary categories of dendrites, and they distinguish the pyramidal cells from spiny stellate cells in the cortices. Pyramidal cells are found in the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, the entorhinal cortex, the olfactory cortex, and other areas. Dendrite arbors formed by apical dendrites are the means by which synaptic inputs into a cell are integrated. The apical dendrites in these regions contribute significantly to memory, learning, and sensory associations by modulating the excitatory and inhibitory signals received by the pyramidal cells.

Neuronal noise Random electric fluctuations in neurons

Neuronal noise or neural noise refers to the random intrinsic electrical fluctuations within neuronal networks. These fluctuations are not associated with encoding a response to internal or external stimuli and can be from one to two orders of magnitude. Most noise commonly occurs below a voltage-threshold that is needed for an action potential to occur, but sometimes it can be present in the form of an action potential; for example, stochastic oscillations in pacemaker neurons in suprachiasmatic nucleus are partially responsible for the organization of circadian rhythms.

In neuroscience, single-unit recordings provide a method of measuring the electro-physiological responses of a single neuron using a microelectrode system. When a neuron generates an action potential, the signal propagates down the neuron as a current which flows in and out of the cell through excitable membrane regions in the soma and axon. A microelectrode is inserted into the brain, where it can record the rate of change in voltage with respect to time. These microelectrodes must be fine-tipped, low-impedance conductors; they are primarily glass micro-pipettes, metal microelectrodes made of platinum, tungsten, iridium or even iridium oxide. Microelectrodes can be carefully placed close to the cell membrane, allowing the ability to record extracellularly.

Group C nerve fiber

Group C nerve fibers are one of three classes of nerve fiber in the central nervous system (CNS) and peripheral nervous system (PNS). The C group fibers are unmyelinated and have a small diameter and low conduction velocity, whereas Groups A and B are myelinated. Group C fibers include postganglionic fibers in the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and nerve fibers at the dorsal roots. These fibers carry sensory information.


Afterhyperpolarization, or AHP, is the hyperpolarizing phase of a neuron's action potential where the cell's membrane potential falls below the normal resting potential. This is also commonly referred to as an action potential's undershoot phase. AHPs have been segregated into "fast", "medium", and "slow" components that appear to have distinct ionic mechanisms and durations. While fast and medium AHPs can be generated by single action potentials, slow AHPs generally develop only during trains of multiple action potentials.

Neural backpropagation is the phenomenon in which after the action potential of a neuron creates a voltage spike down the axon another impulse is generated from the soma and propagates toward to the apical portions of the dendritic arbor or dendrites, from which much of the original input current originated. In addition to active backpropagation of the action potential, there is also passive electrotonic spread. While there is ample evidence to prove the existence of backpropagating action potentials, the function of such action potentials and the extent to which they invade the most distal dendrites remains highly controversial.

Biological neuron model

Biological neuron models, also known as a spiking neuron models, are mathematical descriptions of the properties of certain cells in the nervous system that generate sharp electrical potentials across their cell membrane, roughly one millisecond in duration, called action potentials or spikes. Since spikes are transmitted along the axon and synapses from the sending neuron to many other neurons, spiking neurons are considered to be a major information processing unit of the nervous system. Spiking neuron models can be divided into different categories: the most detailed mathematical models are biophysical neuron models that describe the membrane voltage as a function of the input current and the activation of ion channels. Mathematically simpler are integrate-and-fire models that describe the membrane voltage as a function of the input current and predict the spike times without a description of the biophysical processes that shape the time course of an action potential. Even more abstract models only predict output spikes as a function of the stimulation where the stimulation can occur through sensory input or pharmacologically. This articles provides a short overview of different spiking neuron models and links, whenever possible to experimental phenomena. It includes deterministic and probabilistic models.

Subthreshold membrane potential oscillations

Subthreshold membrane potential oscillations are membrane oscillations that do not directly trigger an action potential since they do not reach the necessary threshold for firing. However, they may facilitate sensory signal processing.

Hyperpolarization-activated cyclic nucleotide–gated (HCN) channels are integral membrane proteins that serve as nonselective voltage-gated cation channels in the plasma membranes of heart and brain cells. HCN channels are sometimes referred to as pacemaker channels because they help to generate rhythmic activity within groups of heart and brain cells. HCN channels are encoded by four genes and are widely expressed throughout the heart and the central nervous system.

Synaptic noise refers to the constant bombardment of synaptic activity in neurons. This occurs in the background of a cell when potentials are produced without the nerve stimulation of an action potential, and are due to the inherently random nature of synapses. These random potentials have similar time courses as excitatory postsynaptic potentials (EPSPs) and inhibitory postsynaptic potentials (IPSPs), yet they lead to variable neuronal responses. The variability is due to differences in the discharge times of action potentials.

Microelectrode arrays (MEAs) are devices that contain multiple microelectrodes through which neural signals are obtained or delivered, essentially serving as neural interfaces that connect neurons to electronic circuitry. There are two general classes of MEAs: implantable MEAs, used in vivo, and non-implantable MEAs, used in vitro.


ANNINE-6plus is a water soluble voltage sensitive dye. This compound was developed at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Germany. It is used to optically measure the changes in transmembrane voltage of excitable cells, including neurons, skeletal and cardiac myocytes.

Genetically encoded voltage indicator is a protein that can sense membrane potential in a cell and relate the change in voltage to a form of output, often fluorescent level. It is a promising optogenetic recording tool that enables exporting electrophysiological signals from cultured cells, live animals, and ultimately human brain. Examples of notable GEVIs include ArcLight, ASAP1, ASAP3, and Ace2N-mNeon.

Brian M. Salzberg is an American neuroscientist, biophysicist and professor. He is Professor of Neuroscience and of Physiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania.


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