Highlights in Chemical Biology

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Studying synapses could help halt epilepsy

02 February 2010

US scientists have manufactured a microfluidic system that could be used to study the development of epilepsy. 

Brains are complex organs full of synaptic connections that communicate by using long fibres called axons. Understanding the processes that guide the development of these synaptic circuits can provide insights into central nervous system disorders. 

Several in vivo approaches have been used to study these connections but suffer limitations concerning selective and controlled manipulation of well-defined portions of the network. This led Kevin Staley and his team at Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, to develop an in vitro microfluidic platform to study how these connections are made and how they affected by drugs. 

Brain slices

Brain slices are cultured separately and connections grow through the small microchannels that join them

The device allows brain slices to be cultured separately, but small microchannels allow axons to grow and connect the separate slices. This allows the scientists to expose slices to different drugs to see what happens to the connections. Yevgeny Berdichevsky, who works in the team with Staley, explained 'We decided to use microfluidics because this technology allowed us to create micro-sized axon conduits and confine drugs to appropriate compartments on the culture chip.' 

By allowing the growth and function of neuronal connections to be easily observed and manipulated, the team say they may be gain a greater understanding of axon sprouting and synapse formation, which is relevant to a number of disorders, from epilepsy to brain damage. 

Richard Miles, who works on the mechanism of epilepsy at the Pierre and Marie Curie University, Paris, France says he is excited by the work, because it can be used for studying how synaptic connections can be made and for isolating sections and seeing how they respond to drugs. 'It's very nice effort and can go in many directions,' he comments. 

Staley's group now intend to use the device to understand the processes involved in excessive connectivity, which is thought to be a cause of epilepsy, and hope to find drugs that could halt or slow the development of the disorder. 

Laura Howes 


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Link to journal article

Building and manipulating neural pathways with microfluidics
Yevgeny Berdichevsky, Kevin J. Staley and Martin L. Yarmush, Lab Chip, 2010, 10, 999
DOI: 10.1039/b922365g

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