Robotic design identifies inner workings of the brain

A new way to automate information collated from neurons in the brain has been developed.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

Neurons in the bran offer a wealth of information; from the pattern of electrical activity, its shape, and potentially the profiling of genetics and in what circumstances particular genes become activated.

However, due to our limited knowledge and scope of inner brain activity and the painstaking difficulty in acquiring this information, only a handful of laboratories around the world perform research dedicated to this cause.

Now, scientists have developed a new way to automate information collated from neurons in the brain.

Ed Boyden, the Benesse Career Development associate professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT and Craig Forest, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, have collaborated and joined their laboratories together in order to develop a way to automate the process of targeting and recording information from neurons in the living brain.

By using a robotic arm guided by computer algorithms that detect these cells in the brain, the new method is able to identify and record information from neurons with faster and better accuracy than a human technician is able to achieve. Forest says:

"Our team has been interdisciplinary from the beginning, and this has enabled us to bring the principles of precision machine design to bear upon the study of the living brain."

The team modernized and automated a 30-year-old technique known as "whole-cell patch clamping"; which involves putting a small, hollow glass pipette in to contact with the cell membrane of a neuron, and the burrowing a tiny pore into the neuron in order to record its electrical activity.

In order to revolutionize this technique, the scientists built a robotic arm that lowers a pipette into the brain with improved accuracy -- by the micrometer -- something that humans are not able to achieve.

By combining the specialties of MIT and Georgia Tech, this new development effectively eradicated the need for months of intensive training and could be used to access wider-ranging and more detailed information about the living brain and cell activity.

Furthermore, this technique could eventually be used to fill in the gaps concerning the thousands of different types of living cells in the brain --- how electrical impulses and cells connect, work, and how to combat cells that become diseased in cases including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and epilepsy. Boyden, a member of MIT’s Media Lab and McGovern Institute for Brain Research, stated:

"In all these cases, a molecular description of a cell that is integrated with [its] electrical and circuit properties has remained elusive. If we could really describe how diseases change molecules in specific cells within the living brain, it might enable better drug targets to be found."

Apart from being useful in further understandings of neuroscience, the team hope it may inspire others to develop their own technological improvements in areas including optogenetics -- the use of light to target neural circuits and understanding of how light affects the brain.

(Source: MIT)

Image credit: Ahmed Riyazi Mohamed


This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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