Lab-on-a-chip looks inside the brain

By Huw Kidwell

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Neuron Nervous system

A lab on a chip method has been developed to mimic brain
chemistry and so give a greater understanding of how neurons in the
brain interact in the formation of a nervous system.

The chip was developed by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering and the School of Medicine in Baltimore, US. The device has a system of channels and wells that allows different chemical signals to be flowed around nerve cells and then allows an observation of their behaviour. The direction a nerve cell decides to grow in is very much influenced by its immediate chemical environment. Dr Andre Levchenko, associate professor of biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering and faculty affiliate of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology commented: "The chip we've developed will make experiments on nerve cells more simple to conduct and to control"​. Dr Guo-li Ming, associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Institute for Cell Engineering said: "It is difficult to establish ideal experimental conditions to study how neurons react to growth signals because so much is happening at once that sorting out nerve cell connections is hard, but the chip, designed by experts in both brain chemistry and engineering, offers a sophisticated way to sort things out". ​The experiments to develop the new chip required researchers to put single neurons onto the chip and then by the use of chemicals influence their behaviour. It was determined that growing neurons could be induced to turn and grow toward a high concentration of some chemical compounds attached to the chip surface. The same things were also tried with signalling compounds in solution. The conclusion drawn from these experiments was that neurons can be made to respond to certain chemical signals in a positive and negative fashion. In addition when neurons are subjected to a mix of chemicals they respond randomly and do not accept one chemical signal over and above another one. Dr Ming said: "The ability to combine several different stimuli in the chip resembles a more realistic environment that nerve cells will encounter in the living animal... This in turn will make future studies on the role of neuronal cells in development and regeneration more accurate and complete".

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