Metabolite distribution imaging via imaging mass spectrometry (IMS) is an increasingly utilized tool in the field of neurochemistry. As most previous IMS studies analyzed the relative abundances of larger metabolite species, it is important to expand its application to smaller molecules, such as neurotransmitters. This study aimed to develop an IMS application to visualize neurotransmitter distribution in central nervous system tissue sections. Here, we raise two technical problems that must be resolved to achieve neurotransmitter imaging: (1) the lower concentrations of bioactive molecules, compared with those of membrane lipids, require higher sensitivity and/or signal-to-noise (S/N) ratios in signal detection, and (2) the molecular turnover of the neurotransmitters is rapid; thus, tissue preparation procedures should be performed carefully to minimize postmortem changes. We first evaluated intrinsic sensitivity and matrix interference using Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption/ Ionization (MALDI) mass spectrometry (MS) to detect six neurotransmitters and chose acetylcholine (ACh) as a model for study. Next, we examined both single MS imaging and MS/MS imaging for ACh and found that via an ion transition from m/z146 to m/z87 in MS/MS imaging, ACh could be visualized with a high S/N ratio. Furthermore, we found that in situ freezing method of brain samples improved IMS data quality in terms of the number of effective pixels and the image contrast (i.e., the sensitivity and dynamic range). Therefore, by addressing the aforementioned problems, we demonstrated the tissue distribution of ACh, the most suitable molecular specimen for positive ion detection by IMS, to reveal its localization in central nervous system tissues.
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