J. Neurochem. (2011) 118, 499–511.
Fatty acids are central to brain metabolism and signaling, but their distributions within complex brain circuits have been difficult to study. Here we applied an emerging technique, time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry (ToF-SIMS), to image specific fatty acids in a favorable model system for chemical analyses of brain circuits, the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata). The zebra finch, a songbird, produces complex learned vocalizations under the control of an interconnected set of discrete, dedicated brain nuclei ‘song nuclei’. Using ToF-SIMS, the major song nuclei were visualized by virtue of differences in their content of essential and non-essential fatty acids. Essential fatty acids (arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) showed distinctive distributions across the song nuclei, and the 18-carbon fatty acids stearate and oleate discriminated the different core and shell subregions of the lateral magnocellular nucleus of the anterior nidopallium. Principal component analysis of the spectral data set provided further evidence of chemical distinctions between the song nuclei. By analyzing the robust nucleus of the arcopallium at three different ages during juvenile song learning, we obtain the first direct evidence of changes in lipid content that correlate with progression of song learning. The results demonstrate the value of ToF-SIMS to study lipids in a favorable model system for probing the function of lipids in brain organization, development and function.