This week for The Bridge, I talked with Richelle about planning for the symposium at the SciArt Center in February. Our goal is to get about 10-15 illustrations done to match with short texts about my neuroscience research. In addition, Richelle has incorporated my neurons into some of her larger drawings that she might bring, and I have a few photos of neurons I would like to bring. Richelle recommended that I try to print some of my best neurons on aluminum sheets to bring out the colors. At the moment, I’m looking for a printer in Chicago who can do something like that, because I think the idea is super cool.
My next text that Richelle is planning to work with is about patching neurons. In my paragraph, I explain the technique of patching, and liken it to sticking a straw into a tennis ball. (Basically, when you patch a cell, you stick a tiny glass tube into a neuron.) In order to provide Richelle with all the imagery she’ll need to illustrate the concept, I’ll be sending her more photos from the lab. Yesterday, I emailed two photos to Richelle. The first photo shows a class tube (pipette) extending from the cell body of a Purkinje neuron, which is the patched cell.
This image is from a light microscope that projects to a camera. In the middle, you can see two round shapes, which are the cell bodies of two different Purkinje neurons. The cell body in the middle has a glass tube (pipette) pushing into its center in order to patch the cell. When the cell is patched, the fluid inside the glass tube can flow freely into the fluid that’s inside the cell body. Making this type of link between the tube and the cell allows me to fill cells with dye for imaging experiments.
The second photo is a larger view of the microscope I use to patch neurons.
In this image, you can see the microscope in the middle, surrounded by a blue Faraday Cage. The Faraday Cage helps reduce noise from air vibrations and movements in our recordings. The microscope floats on a table that is similar to an air hockey table to further reduce vibrations. On the right, there’s a computer I use to monitor the cell’s electrical activity once it’s patched.
Patching cells is an exquisitely delicate technique, so we have to be very careful not to let the microscope move. If you so much as flick the microscope lightly with your finger, the patch between the pipette and the Purkinje neuron’s membrane will immediately break, and you’ll have to start over with a new neuron. In order to reduce air vibrations, the microscope is surrounded by a blue box called a Faraday Cage. To reduce the effects of experiment-ruining building vibrations, we place our microscopes on what is sort of like an air hockey table. As long as nothing moves, we are able to keep a 2-µm pipette precisely centered over the 15-µm cell body.
In other news, I am considering making a series of food sculptures shaped like Purkinje cells. I’ve been compiling a list of food items that would make good cell bodies, dendritic spines, dendrites, etc. This project is still in the brainstorming stage, but I am hoping to build a few of these soon and photograph them. Wouldn’t it be cool to see a Reese’s peanut butter cup as a cell body with Pull ‘n’ Peel licorice as dendrites and Mini M&M dendritic spines?
Check back next week for a new update on my collaboration with Richelle!
Question + Artwork Below…
From Dana: What does it mean to “patch” a cell? Patching a cell is the microscopic equivalent of sticking a straw into the side of a tennis ball, only much more delicate. Once your straw is attached to the tennis ball, you’re free to look through it and see what’s going on inside the tennis ball. In the microscopic world, the straw is a tiny glass tube called a pipette, and the tennis ball is the cell body of a neuron. Researchers use microscopes and micromanipulators to place a pipette delicately so that it gently presses into the cell body of a neuron that is about 20 µm wide. Once the pipette is pressing on the cell, a researcher can apply tiny amounts of negative pressure to suck the cell membrane up against the opening of the pipette. With just the right amount of negative pressure (basically sucking on a straw gently), a researcher can open the portion of the membrane that’s inside the glass pipette opening while leaving the rest of the neuron intact. Once the membrane is open to the pipette, the neuron is considered “patched”.
The reason scientists patch cells, or use the patch clamp technique, is to listen in on a neuron’s activity. Using patch clamp methods to record a neuron’s electrical activity is like eavesdropping on a conversation happening next to you at lunch. Through a glass pipette, researchers can monitor how a neuron communicates with the cells around it. Neurons communicate using electrical signals as their language, and they respond to electrical signals from nearby neurons and cells. We can monitor these conversations to learn about the physiology of different types of cells.
In my research, I patch neurons called Purkinje cells in brain slices from the cerebellum of autistic mice. My goal is to look for differences in the electrical activity of Purkinje cells and their surrounding cells between the autistic and non-autistic mice. By finding differences in electrical conversations in the brain slices from autistic mice, I hope to determine what is different in the autistic brain.
My artwork in response:
Drawing for “What does it mean to ‘patch’ a cell?” – artwork is in progress.