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Scientists build world's tiniest hammer to bang on brain cells

"Our studies could transform our understanding of how cells process and respond to force-based signals," said researcher Megan Valentine.

By Brooks Hays

Feb. 2 (UPI) -- Scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara want to study the effects of various mechanical forces on individual brain cells. Until now, however, researchers didn't have the right tools.

To study brain impacts at the nanoscale, researchers built the world's tiniest hammer -- the μHammer, or "microHammer." The μHammer is a cellular-scale machine capable of applying a variety of mechanical forces to neural progenitor cells, brain-centric stem cells. Eventually, scientists hope to use the hammer to apply forces to neurons and neural tissue.

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The hammer piggybacks on existing cell-sorting technology which isolates individual cells for diagnostics and immunotherapy. Once isolated, the machine can apply a range of forces. Post-impact structural and biomechanical analysis will allow scientists study the effects of focus in near real-time.

"This project will enable precision measurements of the physical, chemical and biological changes that occur when cells are subjected to mechanical loading, ranging from small perturbations to high-force, high-speed impacts," researcher Megan Valentine said in a news release. "Our technology will provide significantly higher forces and faster impact cycles than have previously been possible, and by building these tools onto microfluidic devices, we can leverage a host of other on-chip diagnostics and imaging tools, and can collect the cells after testing for longer-term studies."

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The research isn't so much about studying traumatic brain impacts as it is about understanding the role mechanical forces play in cellular communication.

"Mechanical forces have been shown to impact cells a lot," said researcher Kimberly Turner.

Previous studies suggest mechanical forces can trigger a variety of cellar changes. An impact can cause cells to differentiate or begin healing.

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"Our studies could transform our understanding of how cells process and respond to force-based signals," Valentine concluded. "These signals are essential in development and wound healing in healthy tissues, and are misregulated in diseases such as cancer."

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