Bioluminescence imaging is widely used for optical cell tracking approaches. However, reliable and quantitative bioluminescence of transplanted cells in the brain is highly challenging. In this study we established a new bioluminescence imaging protocol dedicated for neuroimaging, which increases sensitivity especially for noninvasive tracking of brain cell grafts. Different D-Luciferin concentrations (15, 150, 300 and 750 mg/kg), injection routes (i.v., i.p., s.c.), types of anesthesia (Isoflurane, Ketamine/Xylazine, Pentobarbital) and timing of injection were compared using DCX-Luc transgenic mice for brain specific bioluminescence. Luciferase kinetics was quantitatively evaluated for maximal photon emission, total photon emission and time-to-peak. Photon emission followed a D-Luciferin dose-dependent relation without saturation, but with delay in time-to-peak increasing for increasing concentrations. The comparison of intravenous, subcutaneous and intraperitoneal substrate injection reflects expected pharmacokinetics with fastest and highest photon emission for intravenous administration. Ketamine/Xylazine and Pentobarbital anesthesia showed no significant beneficial effect on maximal photon emission. However, a strong difference in outcome was observed by injecting the substrate pre Isoflurane anesthesia. This protocol optimization for brain specific bioluminescence imaging comprises injection of 300 mg/kg D-Luciferin pre Isoflurane anesthesia as an efficient and stable method with a signal gain of approx. 200% (compared to 150 mg/kg post Isoflurane). Gain in sensitivity by the novel imaging protocol was quantitatively assessed by signal-to-noise calculations of luciferase-expressing neural stem cells grafted into mouse brains (transplantation of 3,000-300,000 cells). The optimized imaging protocol lowered the detection limit from 6,000 to 3,000 cells by a gain in signal-to-noise ratio.
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