In recent years, great advancements have been made in researching technologies to study human tissues in health and disease. One area that has gathered particular interest is the field of microfluidics, which can be simply defined as a system that allows for control over delivery of small volumes of fluids.
Microfluidic systems allow researchers to design highly specialised ‘chips’ that can be used to simulate certain environments in the body. Small volumes of fluid can be introduced to cells within the chip and their response to certain chemicals can be analysed. By doing so, it is possible to study the role specific molecules and cell types play in tissue/organ function.
This area of research is of particular interest in studying the central nervous system (CNS). It is hoped that, by gaining a better understanding of CNS function, we could learn more about diseases associated with damage to nervous tissue.
A recent study published by scientists in Sweden and Norway aims to shed greater light on this with the design of a system for studying how nerve cells communicate with each other.
Design of the ‘Chip’
In a collaboration between multiple institutes, microfluidic chips were designed to replicate the environment within which nerve cells/neurons communicate with each other.
The chip itself contained micro-sized chambers where nerve cells could be grown. Each chamber is connected by a network of remarkably narrow channels.
Down each channel, cells are able to project nerve fibres (axons) allowing them to transmit signals to cells in neighbouring chambers.
Modelling The Central Nervous System
What gives platform such great potential is it’s ability to model our central nervous system in a lab. The dense network of cell connections that drives our nervous system is complex and many of the underlying mechanisms of action are still poorly understood.
By using their ‘nervous system on a chip’, the research team are able to establish a network of nerve cells that bare resemblance to the natural counterpart.
The design of the chip allowed the team to place a great deal of control over how each chamber of cells interacted with each other. This, in turn, allowed the researchers to also replicate and study the way in which our complex network of nerve cells forms.
Potential Healthcare Applications
Such a system carries a large variety of potential applications in the field of healthcare. Some of the more commonly known healthcare issues associated with damaged nervous tissue include motor neuron disease, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
However there are a large number of lesser reported conditions associated with defects in the central nervous system.
This platform could allow for scientists to better probe the underlying causes of such diseases, leading to greater chances of finding treatments. The research group plan to continue developing the system, making it more intricate and allowing for even greater insight into how our central nervous system works.
As the field of microfluidics gains even more momentum, developments such as this could set the pace in a march toward a greater understanding of many healthcare issues.
van de Wijdeven R, Ramstad OH, Bauer US, Halaas Ø, Sandvig A, Sandvig I Structuring a multi-nodal neural network in vitro within a novel design microfluidic chip Biomed Microdevices. 2018 Jan 2;20(1):9. doi: 10.1007/s10544-017-0254-4
Author: Dr Sam Moxon; Biomaterials Research Associate at the University of Manchester. Image: Emily King/Flickr