A prerequisite for many studies of neurons in culture is a means of determining their original identity. We needed such a technique to study the interactions in vitro between a class of spinal cord neurons, sympathetic preganglionic neurons, and their normal target, neurons from the sympathetic chain. Here, we describe how we use two highly fluorescent carbocyanine dyes, which differ in color but are otherwise similar, to identify neurons in culture. The long carbon chain carbocyanine dyes we use are lipid-soluble and so become incorporated into the plasma membrane. Neurons can be labeled either retrogradely or during dissociation. Some of the labeled membrane gradually becomes internalized and retains its fluorescence, allowing identification of cells for several weeks in culture. These dyes do not affect the survival, development, or basic physiological properties of neurons and do not spread detectably from labeled to unlabeled neurons. It seems likely that cells become retrogradely labeled mainly by lateral diffusion of dye in the plane of the membrane. If so, carbocyanine dyes may be most useful for retrograde labeling over relatively short distances. An additional feature of carbocyanine labeling is that neuronal processes are brightly fluorescent for the first few days in culture, presumably because dye rapidly diffuses into newly inserted membrane. We have used carbocyanine dyes to identify sympathetic preganglionic neurons in culture. Our results indicate that preganglionic neurons can survive in the absence of their target cells and that several aspects of their differentiation in the absence of target appear normal.

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