Gaining access to the inner workings of a neuron in the living brain offers a wealth of useful information: its patterns of electrical activity, its shape, even a profile of which genes are turned on at a given moment. Using this technique, scientists could classify the thousands of different types of cells in the brain, map how they connect to each other, and figure out how diseased cells differ from normal cells. In all these cases, a molecular description of a cell that is integrated with [its] electrical and circuit properties has remained elusive, says Boyden, who is a member of MIT's Media Lab and McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Kodandaramaiah, Boyden and Forest set out to automate a 30-year-old technique known as whole-cell patch clamping, which involves bringing a tiny hollow glass pipette in contact with the cell membrane of a neuron, then opening up a small pore in the membrane to record the electrical activity within the cell.
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