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Robot records electrical activity in human brain

Posted: 08 May 2012     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:human brain  robotics  micrometre 

Inner workings of brain have always been the subject of human curiosity. But, the researchers at MIT and Georgia Institute of Technology claim to have cracked the mystery and that too with the help of robots.

They have developed an automated way to record electrical activity inside neurons in the living brain. The researchers said a robotic arm guided by a cell-detecting computer algorithm can "identify and record from neurons in the living mouse brain with better accuracy and speed than a human experimenter."

"Using this technique, scientists could classify the thousands of different types of cells in the brain, map how they connect to each other, and figure out how diseased cells differ from normal cells," according to the researchers.

Suhasa Kodandaramaiah, a visiting student at MIT and the lead author of the study, and his team built a robotic arm that lowers a glass pipette into the brain of an anaesthetized mouse with micrometre 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-micrometre 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."

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 per cent accuracy, and establish a connection with the detected cells about 40 per cent of the time.

The researchers also showed that their method can be used to determine the shape of the cell by injecting a dye; they are now working on extracting a cell's contents to read its genetic profile.

The researchers recently created a start-up company, called Neuromatic Devices, to commercialise the device.

The researchers are now working on scaling up the number of electrodes so they can record from multiple neurons at a time, potentially allowing them to determine how different parts of the brain are connected.

They are also working with collaborators to start classifying the thousands of types of neurons found in the brain. This "parts list" for the brain would identify neurons not only by their shape—which is the most common means of classification—but also by their electrical activity and genetic profile.

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