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‘Seeing’ robot learns tricky technique for studying brain cells in mammals

Whole-cell patch clamp electrophysiology, or whole-cell recording (WCR), is the gold-standard technique for studying the behaviour of brain cells called neurons under different brain states such as stress or learning.

The procedure has been used in mammals since it was developed in the 1970s. It helps scientists to understand brain function and brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s. They do this by looking at the electrical activity of individual neurons in a live mammal brain to build a bigger picture of its function as a whole organ. This information is used to understand the role of electrical function in human brain disorders.

However, WCR is notoriously challenging to perform because of the small scale of the equipment and the microscopic nature of the cells involved. It also requires very precise movements to find neurons and then record their electrical currents accurately. Therefore only a small number of laboratories worldwide specialise in the technique.

Now, for the first time, a team of scientists led by Professor Simon Schultz and Dr Luca Annecchino at Imperial College London has developed a robot and computer programme that can guide tiny measuring devices called micropipettes to specific neurons in the brains of live mice and record electrical currents, all without human intervention. This is the first reported fully automated platform to do this.

Senior author Professor Schultz said: “To understand the brain as a whole organ, we need to know how neurons work and communicate with one another. Neurons in themselves are complex structures that use electrical and molecular signals to send information to neighbouring neurons, and the brain as a whole structure. Neurons also act differently depending on whether they are healthy or not fully functioning due to certain brain disorders. The WCR technique is a way to eavesdrop on these cells and how they communicate with their neighbours.