The patch clamp technique, for which the 1991 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded, is widely used to study the electrical activity of individual cells. It is particularly useful in neuroscience because electricity is the language through which neurons communicate. But it is slow and tedious since it requires a trained specialist to manually position a glass pipette against a cell’s membrane and to do so repeatedly throughout the day.
At Purdue University, scientists have now created a system that automates this process and which holds the promise of being able to better study neuronal activity by collecting significantly more data on more cells. This may provide a better understanding of how different drugs affect the brain and the rest of the central nervous system, and in the process result in new therapies that avoid the pitfalls of old ones.
The robotic system relies on a special algorithm that tells it where to move without much input from a human. Computer vision techniques and automated image guidance make it so that the operator doesn’t have to have as much experience, or receptivity to tedium, to be able to run patch clamp experiments on many neuronal cells.
Moreover, the system is able to point to individual cells it is accessing using 3D coordinates, that can then be used to deliver drugs to the cells being investigated.
Image: A neuron patched with the automated image-guided patch clamp system in the brain slice.