Scanning laser optical tomography resolves developmental neurotoxic effects on pioneer neurons
Developmental neurotoxic compounds impair the developing human nervous system at lower doses than those affecting adults. Standardized test methods for assessing developmental neurotoxicity (DNT) require the use of high numbers of laboratory animals. Here, we use a novel assay that is based on the development of an intact insect embryo in serum-free culture. Neural pathways in the leg of embryonic locusts are established by a pair of afferent pioneer neurons, extending axons along a well-defined pathway to the central nervous system. After exposure to test chemicals, we analyze pioneer neuron shape with conventional fluorescence microscopy and compare it to 3D images, obtained by scanning laser optical tomography (SLOT) and processed by a segmentation algorithm. The segmented SLOT images resolve the 3D structure of the pioneers, recognize pathfinding defects and are thus advantageous for detecting DNT-positive compounds. The defects in axon elongation and pathfinding of pioneer axons caused by two DNT-positive reference compounds (methylmercury chloride; sodium(meta)arsenite) are compared to the biochemically measured general viability of the embryo. Using conventional fluorescence microscopy to establish concentration-response curves of axon elongation, we show that this assay identifies methylmercury chloride and the pro-apoptotic compound staurosporine as developmental neurotoxicants.