To make this technique more widely available, MIT engineers have now devised a way to automate the process, using a computer algorithm that analyzes microscope images and guides a robotic arm to the target cell.
Researchers could also use it to learn more about how neural circuits are affected by brain disorders.
Our hope is this technology will allow you to look at what's happening inside a cell, in terms of neural computation, or in a disease state," says Ed Boyden, an associate professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, and a member of MIT's Media Lab and McGovern Institute for Brain Research.
For more than 30 years, neuroscientists have been using a technique known as patch clamping to record the electrical activity of cells.
This method, 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, usually takes a graduate student or postdoc several months to learn.
There are two types of patch clamping: a "blind" (not image-guided) method, which is limited because researchers cannot see where the cells are and can only record from whatever cell the pipette encounters first, and an image-guided version that allows a specific cell to be targeted.