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