ARCHIVED - Research Update - Connecting with Brain Cells on a Chip

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October 04, 2004— Ottawa, Ontario

At its most basic level, biology involves communications between cells, communications that are necessary for organisms to perform and manage the many functions required to sustain life. Disease often arises due to malfunctions in these communication pathways with the result that a critical message is not sent, or that the wrong message is sent.

View of "Synaptic chip" in progressive detail

Ion channels play an integral role in many of these signalling pathways. They also serve to maintain ion homeostasis, and generate and propagate electrical responses, or “action potentials”. Ion channels can be considered as critical components of the body’s internal wiring and networking system.

Malfunctions in ion channel function have been associated with a variety of diseases and, therefore, also represent a potential target for new disease therapies. Recent literature on biotechnology trends has pointed to ion channels as being an important, and as of yet, largely untapped target for therapeutic intervention.

Researchers at the NRC Institute for Biological Sciences (NRC-IBS) and the NRC Institute for Microstructural Sciences (NRC-IMS) are teaming up to develop better tools to understand how ion channels work in neuronal cell networks, efforts that will lead to novel research in the field and, ultimately, to a better understanding of mechanisms underlying neurodegeneration. This, in turn, may lead to more effective drug therapies to combat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The team at NRC-IBS has been working with technology developed by researchers at NRC-IMS to grow neurons (brain cells) on a hybrid silicon-polymer chip with micro and nanoscale features. Using this system, cells can be encouraged to grow in an orderly fashion and follow specific patterns, advantages not possible with conventional cell culture techniques, where new neurons grow randomly.

Using this synthetic network, it is hoped that different neurons can be made to “snap” together like pieces of “Lego” specifically on top of miniaturized probes fabricated by conventional microfabrication techniques. This will allow scientists to create specific connections and systematically study relationships between different neurons. Such work will help researchers better understand how neurons communicate with each other and with other types of brain cells.

The team is also attempting to develop a novel electrical / mechanical interface with these neural networks, technology made possible because of the decision to grow neurons on a silicon chip. In the future, these synthetic neural network chips could help users process complex bioassays more quickly, speeding up the drug discovery process in the same way automated DNA sequencing helped drive the genomics revolution over a decade ago.

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