Bruce Gale, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah, will be working on a five-year project funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) targeted at better understanding how the nervous system processes information (learns & remembers), potentially leading to new treatments for various human neurological disorders.

The study, led by Andres Villu Maricq, a biologist at the University of Utah, requires the development of new techniques, such as movies of nerve cells or neurons in action as they study C. elegans (nematodes or roundworms), a worm about the diameter of a human hair and 1 mm long, as they engage in learning. 

Researchers plan to study the worms because they are transparent and possess a less complex nervous system than humans, making it easier to observe the basic interaction between their nerve cells.

“We hope to see what changes occur, specifically with the protein structures in each nerve cell, at the synapses, or where the nerves connect,” said Gale. “By understanding what happens in an organism with a less complex nervous system, hopefully we will be able to understand more about our own.” c elegans

Gale will build a mechanical microfluidic system that will be used to stimulate the C. elegans and then observe their reaction. Researchers plan to introduce various environmental stimuli, observe the physical changes in the worms, alter their genes, and then repeat the process to see what changes occur. To accomplish these goals, the microfluidic system will require integrated pumps, valves, worm trap stations, imaging, and automation components.

“We are hoping that our system will shorten a project that normally would have taken 20 years down to five years,” said Gale. “This will drastically reduce the time and money usually required for these types of projects.”

Gale has already proven that most of the process is possible and is now working on streamlining it for use in the project. He will be employing three pre/post-grad students over the next five years on the project.