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A Robot Helps Listen In on Brain Cell Chatter

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Erwin Neher and Bert Sakmann received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1991 for their development of the patch-clamp technique, which records currents coursing through single ion channels in cells. For neuroscientists, one form of this technique  has become the gold standard for probing information about the goings-on inside a cell. It can not only track electrical activity but determine cell shape (through the use of dyes) and even which genes have switched on.

The manual manipulation of the micropipette used for recording requires such delicate handling that only a small number of laboratories actually use the technique to study the living brain. A robot is now rushing to the rescue of legions of befuddled graduate students.

A collaboration between researchers at the laboratory of Ed Boyden at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and that of Craig Forest at the  Georgia Institute of Technology has devised an automated method for placing the pipette and making recordings that will make this research method more commonplace.

The two labs published on their work in the May 6 Nature Methods. (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.) The new technique  may save graduate students the several months of toil that it takes to learn the old method—and it may help with the ongoing efforts to classify the multitude of cell types in the brain. Automated whole patch clamping will also be deployed in studying brain diseases like Parkinson’s and epilepsy. Boyden and Forest’s group have created a video that takes you step-by-step into the lab to see how this new technique works. Watch here.


Image Source: Boyden Lab, Sputnik Animation, McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT

About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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