Memory-relevant neuronal plasticity is believed to require local translation of new proteins at synapses. Understanding this process has necessitated the development of tools to visualize mRNA within relevant neuronal compartments. In this review, we summarize the technical developments that now enable mRNA transcripts and their translation to be visualized at single-molecule resolution in both fixed and live cells. These tools include single-molecule fluorescence in situ hybridization (smFISH) to visualize mRNA in fixed cells, MS2/PP7 labelling for live mRNA imaging and SunTag labelling to observe the emergence of nascent polypeptides from a single translating mRNA. The application of these tools in cultured neurons and more recently in whole brains promises to revolutionize our understanding of local translation in the neuronal plasticity that underlies behavioural change.

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