Axons are very unique cells in the body. Their shape alone reveals their incredible specialisation and when combined with the dendrites (the input receivers) and the soma (the main cell body) they form the ever important neurones.
By working together the axons are able to pass an electrical signal as a message over long distances throughout the body. Of particular interest are the axons that exist in the brain, and how they came to be there. Axon guidance is the study of the growth and development of axons and specifically how they are able to locate the intended neurological target within the brain with which to connect.
The ideal scenario would be to be able to study the growth of neurones within a living organism although this has always been an extremely challenging process. Instead intricate experiments are set up to simulate various scenarios in the brain with variable success. One of the modern tools for these experiments is microfluidics which I have previously talked about producing liposomes with. Now this study has taken the concept to a whole new level with the construction of a 16×16 array of tiny microfluidic chambers. This set up is then seeded with cells aiming to try and achieve only a single cell per vessel, with about 380 out of the 1024 compartments achieving this. About every 18 seconds the fluid at the base of each chamber was replaced with a fresh batch pumped in by tiny microjets. Using time lapse microscopy (making a time lapse of microscopic images) it is possible to gain useful data from about 200 neurones developing for each experiment. The pure efficiency of this method is marvellous as with a single stroke it can deliver ten times more data then previous ever could and with the possibility of being up scaled to provide even more. Although it does not assist axon guidance research directly this work will allow the biophysics community to accelerate their experiments into neurone growth and development to uncover the complex mechanisms behind it.