Art of Studying Brain Cells Taught to RobotsCategory: Science & Technology
Posted: May 8, 2012 07:28AM
When studying how the brain works non-invasive scans are not always good enough and more direct methods are needed to collect data. Whole-cell patch clamping involves using a pipette to open a small pore in the membrane of a brain cell. The electrical activity of the cell can then be recorded through the hole. It takes a graduate student or postdoc months to learn how to do this, but that does not prevent it from being boring.
Researchers at MIT and the Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT) have together created a robot that can also perform the art of whole-cell patch clamping. This could hugely advance neuroscience as so few labs are able to perform this time consuming and delicate procedure. The robot is able to scan through the brain with the pipette moving just two micrometers at a time. When it encounters a cell, the robot stops and collects data, just as a human would. However, the robot is able to detect cells 90% of the time, which is considerably better than what a human can do.
This method can also be used to the collect genetic information of individual cells, which would greatly increase our understanding of neurons. Currently the primary feature used to classify neurons is their shape, which tells us a lot, but not the whole story. The researchers also hope to add additional pipettes to the robot, so multiple cells can be studied at the same time, as well as how they communicate with each other.