Undergraduate students learn how to record and interpret data from brain cells

Wayne Gillam

Neural engineering is a cutting-edge field that draws students from diverse backgrounds such as bioengineering, biochemistry, electrical engineering and applied math. One of the challenges inherent in the cross-disciplinary nature of this new and emerging academic domain is providing necessary education and training in the biological sciences to students from computational backgrounds such as engineering or applied math.

The Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) is helping to meet this educational need by creating a unique lab experience available to undergraduate students. The Neural Computation and Engineering Laboratory (NBIO 405 / BIOEN 466) is a new course offered this spring at the University of Washington (UW), and it is taught by Dr. Lise Johnson, University Education Manager at the CSNE. The lab is a full-quarter course that counts toward curriculum requirements within the new UW Undergraduate Minor in Neural Computation and Engineering, which is currently under development.

Students taking the lab this quarter are majoring in bioengineering, electrical engineering, applied math and biochemistry, but future students could come from other engineering disciplines as well. The lab's course content is based on the UW Neurobiology labs 301 and 302, combining those two labs into a custom-designed, one-quarter lab for undergraduate students.

According to Dr. Lise Johnson, "It's a really excellent lab course developed first for the neurobiology students here (at the UW), so we're really lucky that we get to take advantage of that."

The lab is open to students who haven't taken many biology prerequisites, and it is unique in that it is targeted towards students who have a computational background. With this in mind, the lab emphasizes an understanding of neural data from a computational perspective. The lab is also noteworthy, even for a neurobiology lab, because the recording instruments students will be using are very sophisticated (and real) pieces of electrophysiology equipment. In this lab, students perform biological preparations that most undergraduates don't have an opportunity to do.

In the lab, students learn how to record from brain cells (neurons), and how to interpret what it is that they are recording. This is a "wet" laboratory experience, where students learn by experimenting with invertebrate preparations. Lab experiments include:

  • Performing an extracellular recording from a cockroach leg. In an extracellular neural recording, electrodes are placed up against (outside) neural cells in biological tissue and nerve action potentials (spikes) are recorded from a number of different cells at the same time.
  • Studying equivalent RC (Resistance-Capacitance) circuits, where students learn how to simulate the resistance-capacitance of a neural cell. In this section of the lab, students practice using delicate intracellular amplifier equipment and gain a better understanding of how to represent properties of a neuron using electrical components.
  • Performing an intracellular recording from a leech ganglion, which is recording nerve spikes from inside a cell, something undergraduate science and engineering students often read about, but rarely get to do.
  • Performing extracellular recordings from fly photoreceptor cells, which is recording from neurons that detect light within the fly's eye.
  • Studying human auditory psychophysics. In this section of the lab, students will put on headphones and play sounds to themselves, recording their responses to try and piece together how their own auditory system represents incoming auditory stimuli.

Because most students are coming from engineering backgrounds, many have never had this unique opportunity to actually record from neurons.

As Dr. Johnson stated, "Students are coming from hard science, or engineering backgrounds, or applied math, and they might never have had the opportunity to record from a neuron. So, even if they've been through a biology course, and they've learned what neurons are, and they have a fundamental understanding of how neurons should connect to each other and how neurons communicate with each other, they've never gotten in and done a neural recording. We also don't assume that the students are coming in with a lot of neuroscience background. I try to tell them about the underlying physiology, and then connect that (understanding) to computational and engineering techniques."

This lab experience is important for collaborations the students will likely be involved with in their future careers. Students who study and later work in the field of neural engineering will oftentimes be partnering with a collaborator who will be collecting data, or they will be simulating or modeling biological data themselves. If students aspire to be computational neuroscientists, this lab will help provide a solid understanding of both neural data and its biological background. For those who are planning to become neural engineers, the lab will help them better understand the biological background behind neural information, as well as understand how research equipment interfaces with biology. In most cases, more background in the biology that underlies neural computation and engineering is very helpful, and it can give students an edge later on in whatever their chosen scientific profession may be.

The lab is now part of the University of Washington's regular curriculum in both Bioengineering and Neurobiology, and it will be taught by Dr. Johnson during Spring Quarter. For more information about the Neural Computation and Engineering Laboratory at the University of Washington, or other educational programs offered through the CSNE, please contact Dr. Eric Chudler, CSNE Education Director.