Developing microfluidic systems for high throughput studies of functional neuronal networks


This project aims to develop new microfluidic systems for neuronal culture that makes it possible to take simultaneous optical and electrical recordings of cellular activity.  Applications to drug screening, gene function and neurotoxicity will reduce the need for animal studies in these areas.


Disorders of the central nervous system (CNS) have a severe impact on society, especially with an ageing population. Technological advances can drive forward understanding of how neuronal function and communication is altered in CNS disorders. In vitro methods have been valuable research tools for studying the function of neurons, but conventional techniques do not allow the parameters that influence cellular activity and communication to be controlled. Microfluidic technology could provide a viable solution to these problems because it can give researchers greater control over the formation of simplified neuronal networks that mimic conditions in animals.

Research details and methods

The aim of this project is to develop novel and high throughput microfluidic systems for advanced patterning of neuronal cultures. These will allow simultaneous optical and electrical recording of cellular activity and will be used for drug screening and mechanistic studies of gene function implicated in CNS disorders. Novel patterning of neuronal cultures will also enable the study of how localised neurotoxicity spreads to affect neighbouring cells.

In vitro studies are invaluable as a primary tool for investigating the cellular and sub-cellular changes implicated in CNS disorders. Whilst many biological experiments use primary cultures, it is difficult to gain control over the parameters that influence the cellular microenvironment and interaction. As a consequence, it is often impossible to decouple and simplify the mechanisms underlying cellular activity, obtaining only averaged responses observed on global cell populations allied to low-throughput and time consuming studies. A viable solution to these problems lies in the use of in vitro miniaturised procedures which enable the formation of simplified structured neuronal networks thus allowing the controlled, localised application of compounds or the localised transfection of cell populations to identify the consequence on cell activity and communication. The aim of this project is to develop novel and high-throughput microfluidic systems for advanced patterning of neuronal cultures that will allow simultaneous optical and electrical recording of cellular activity, as well as enabling CNS drug discovery studies to be conducted using small amounts of novel compounds and the investigation of the consequence on cellular activity of altered protein expression (achieved by knock-down/overexpression) proposed to underlie certain CNS disorders. Finally, combining this system with novel patterning of neuronal cultures will enable the examination of localised neurotoxicity and how it spreads to affect neighbouring microfluidically isolated cultures. Taken together, this project will develop a novel microfluidic platform ideal for in vitro neurobiological studies.

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PhD Studentship



Principal investigator

Dr Michele Zagnoni


University of Strathclyde


Dr Trevor Bushell

Grant reference number


Award date:

Sep 2014 - Aug 2017

Grant amount