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Article: Robot Reveals the Inner Workings of Brain Cells

by ThinkToday
Tags: article, brain, cells, reveals, robot, workings
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May11-12, 01:13 PM
P: 172

Browsing the alumni stuff, I see things that make me wish I were back in school. You kids and faculty are so lucky to be able to do this kind of stuff every day. I have serious envy! Alas, wife, kids, house, bills, argh. Nothing but work in my near future. I will be one of those old people that retires spending their free time learning in college, again.
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May12-12, 12:45 AM
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Kodandaramaiah, Boyden and Forest set out to automate a 30-year-old technique known as whole-cell patch clamping, which involves bringing a tiny hollow glass pipette in contact with the cell membrane of a neuron, then opening up a small pore in the membrane to record the electrical activity within the cell. This skill usually takes a graduate student or postdoc several months to learn.

Kodandaramaiah spent about four months learning the manual patch-clamp technique, giving him an appreciation for its difficulty. “When I got reasonably good at it, I could sense that even though it is an art form, it can be reduced to a set of stereotyped tasks and decisions that could be executed by a robot,” he says.

To that end, Kodandaramaiah and his colleagues built a robotic arm that lowers a glass pipette into the brain of an anesthetized mouse with micrometer accuracy. As it moves, the pipette monitors a property called electrical impedance — a measure of how difficult it is for electricity to flow out of the pipette. If there are no cells around, electricity flows and impedance is low. When the tip hits a cell, electricity can’t flow as well and impedance goes up.

The pipette takes two-micrometer steps, measuring impedance 10 times per second. Once it detects a cell, it can stop instantly, preventing it from poking through the membrane. “This is something a robot can do that a human can’t,” Boyden says.

Once the pipette finds a cell, it applies suction to form a seal with the cell’s membrane. Then, the electrode can break through the membrane to record the cell’s internal electrical activity. The robotic system can detect cells with 90 percent accuracy, and establish a connection with the detected cells about 40 percent of the time.
This is quite a shortcut!

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