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Robots are now better at targeting individual neurons than people are

Rob LeFebvre

The brain is a delicate thing, and scientists keep looking for high tech ways to make it easier and safer to to learn more about it. In the area of brain surgery, there have been smart scalpels that know the difference between tumors and healthy tissue, sensor-embedded plastic wrap to help doctors know just where to operate and even VR headsets to help surgeons monitor patients while they're in the OR. Studying the brain leads to even better outcomes, too, and engineers at MIT have just published a paper about using robots to target individual neurons from inside a living brain in order to record their electrical signals.

Previously, neuroscientists relied on "patch clamping" to record the activity of individual brain cells. The method requires a tiny glass pipette into contact with the membrane of the neuron and then opening up a small pore in that membrane. The technique takes graduates and postdocs months to learn, and it's commensurately harder in a living brain. The new MIT system uses a computer algorithm to analyze images from a microscope and then guide a robotic arm to the target neuron. This makes it much easier to study single neurons in live tissue and see how they interact with other cells to produce cognition, sensory perception and other important brain functions.

"Knowing how neurons communicate is fundamental to basic and clinical neuroscience, said senior author and MIT professor Ed Boyden. "Our hope is this technology will allow you to look at what's happening inside a cell, in terms of neural computation, or in a disease state."

The new computer-aided technique will open up the field to more researchers in time, which could yield some interesting in-depth studies that could help us understand disorders like Alzheimer's or schizophrenia.