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Microfluidic Device for Nerve Cells May Aid Efforts for Neurodegenerative Disorders

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A microfluidic chamber will allow scientists to examine axons in living nerve cells and may lead to a better understanding of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and may be used to screen drugs to overcome spinal cord injuries, according to researchers in The Henry Samueli School of Engineering at the University of California, Irvine.

Biomedical engineer Noo Li Jeon and colleagues have designed a microfluidic device, which uses tiny volumes of fluid to culture, or grow neurons.

The technology enables live imaging of neurons by fluidically isolating axons from other complex parts of the cell. This method allows researchers to examine and manipulate the axons for their deficiencies in signal propagation, while looking at how they affect particular brain diseases and disorders.

Axons are the threadlike neuron fibers that send information via nerve impulses and other signals throughout the central nervous system.

"Previous solutions were extremely challenging to fabricate and assemble, precluding high-throughput experimentation," said Jeon, who is a professor in The Henry Samueli School of Engineering.

"Our microfluidic culture platform consists of a molded elastomeric polymer piece placed against a glass cover slip. The design incorporates a physical barrier with embedded microgrooves separating two mirror image compartments. Additionally, this method allows us to use 100 times less liquid, therefore reducing costs."

By developing a device with separate micro-compartments and creating small tunnels to connect the "rooms" of the compartments, Jeon and his team were able to study neuron damage by subjecting axons to different treatments and applications without compromising the entire cell body.

"Microfluidics is becoming an increasingly useful tool for cellular biologists because it allows us to precisely control, monitor and manipulate cellular environments," Jeon added. "Through the use of microfluidic chambers, we are able to isolate and direct the growth of axons without the use of neurotrophins, providing a highly adaptable system to model many aspects of neurodegeneration and injury."

Jeon and his team have applied for a U.S. patent and are currently negotiating a licensing agreement for manufacturing and distribution. They expect that the device will become commercially available by 2007.
Findings are highlighted in the August 2005 edition of "Nature Methods" magazine.