Synapses are diverse in form and function; however, the mechanisms underlying this diversity are poorly understood. To illuminate structure/function relationships, robust analysis of molecular composition and morphology is needed. The molecular-anatomical components of synapses-vesicles, clusters of voltage-gated ion channels in presynaptic densities, arrays of transmitter receptors in postsynaptic densities-are only tens to hundreds of nanometers in size. Measuring the topographies of synaptic proteins requires nanoscale resolution of their molecularly specific labels. Super-resolution light microscopy has emerged to meet this need. Achieving 50 nm resolution in thick tissue, we employed stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy to image the functionally and molecularly unique ribbon-type synapses in the inner ear that connect mechano-sensory inner hair cells to cochlear nerve fibers. Synaptic ribbons, bassoon protein, voltage-gated Ca2+ channels, and glutamate receptors are inhomogeneous in their spatial distributions within synapses; the protein clusters assume variations of shapes typical for each protein specifically at cochlear afferent synapses. Heterogeneity of substructure among these synapses may contribute to functional differences among auditory nerve fibers. The morphology of synaptic voltage-gated Ca2+ channels matures over development in a way that depends upon bassoon protein, which aggregates in similar form. Functional properties of synaptic transmission appear to depend on voltage-gated Ca2+ channel cluster morphology and position relative to synaptic vesicles. Super-resolution light microscopy is a group of techniques that complement electron microscopy and conventional light microscopy. Although technical hurdles remain, we are beginning to resolve the details of molecular nanoanatomy that relate mechanistically to synaptic function.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)242-255
Number of pages14
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2015


  • AMPA receptor
  • Bassoon
  • Ca1.3
  • Cochlea
  • CtBP2/Ribeye
  • Hair cell
  • Spiral ganglion neuron
  • Stimulated emission depletion
  • Stimulus-secretion coupling
  • Super-resolution light microscopy


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