But that could soon change: Researchers at MIT and the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a way to automate the process of finding and recording information from neurons in the living brain. The researchers have shown that 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.
The new automated process eliminates the need for months of training and provides long-sought information about living cells' activities. 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.
The project is a collaboration between the labs of Ed Boyden, associate professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, and Craig Forest, an assistant professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech.
"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," Forest says. His graduate student, Suhasa Kodandaramaiah, spent the past two years as a visiting student at MIT, and is the lead author of the study, which appears in the May 6 issue of Nature Methods.
The method could be particularly useful in studying brain disorders such as schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease, autism and epilepsy, Boyden says. "In all these cases, a molecular description of a cell that is integrated with [its] electrical and circuit properties … has remained elusive," says Boyden, who is a member of MIT's Media Lab and McGovern Institute for Brain Research. "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."