Microfluidic devices have been used to study high-density cultures of many cell types. Because cell-to-cell signaling is local, however, there exists a need to develop culture systems that sustain small numbers of neurons and enable analyses of the microenvironments. Such cultures are hard to maintain in stable form, and it is difficult to prevent cell death when using primary mammalian neurons. We demonstrate that postnatal primary hippocampal neurons from rat can be cultured at low densities within nanoliter-volume microdevices fabricated using polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). Doing so requires an additional fabrication step, serial extractions/washes of PDMS with several solvents, which removes uncrosslinked oligomers, solvent and residues of the platinum catalyst used to cure the polymer. We found this step improves the biocompatibility of the PDMS devices significantly. Whereas neurons survive for ≥ 7 days in open channel microdevices, the ability to culture neurons in closed-channel devices made of untreated, native PDMS is limited to ≤ 2 days. When the closed-channel PDMS devices are extracted, biocompatibility improves allowing for reliable neuron cultures at low densities for ≥ 7 days. Comparisons made to autoclaved PDMS and native, untreated PDMS reveal that the solvent-treated polymer is superior in sustaining low densities of primary neurons in culture. When neuronal affinity for local substrates is observed directly, we find that axons localize to channel corners and prefer PDMS surfaces to glass in hybrid devices. When perfusing the channels with media by gravity flow, cultured hippocampal neurons survive for ≥ 11 days. Extracting PDMS improves biocompatibility of microfluidic devices and thus enables the study of differentiation of identifiable neurons and the characterization of local extracellular signals.
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