The first Plymouth Electrophysiology course took place in April 1984, and this year's 2013 course will be the 30th . The idea was to give hands-on training of the techniques, the instruments and, most importantly, the 'tricks of the trade' to ensure effective electrophysiological recordings.
In the early 1980's a group headed by Anne Warner set up the first 5 courses. At the time we started, the classical microelectrode methods were being applied to tissues other than the traditional excitable nerve and muscle cells. Also significantly, the tight-seal patch clamp techniques were being refined and their potential applications outside single channel recording were becoming apparent. Advances started with whole cell recording, later in slices and now in vivo.
The 'old aquarium' at the Marine Biological Association (MBA) became a superb classroom. It is both an appropriate and a practical venue for the course. Historically it has fostered research into all aspects of marine biology and the physiology of marine animals and plants. The research area attracted visiting physiologists, most notably the famous investigations of excitability and the action potential, by Hodgkin and Huxley, in giant nerve cells of the squid. In the early 1980's a group headed by Anne Warner of University College set up the first 5 courses. The MBA still has an active visitors' programme using guest houses out-of-season to accommodate visiting researchers, and these are used for instructors and students.
The techniques taught in the first courses ranged from the well-established varieties of voltage clamp to the (then new) patch clamp and fluorescent indicator methods. All of the older techniques remain in the syllabus because they emphasise particular difficulties in recording that are common. Gradually, several variants of patch clamp were added; capacitance and amperometry related to secretion, bilayer recording and multi-electrode arrays. There is now less emphasis on the marine invertebrates and plants. We have use of facilities at the University of Plymouth for vertebrates and Drosophila for genetic studies.
More than 600 have attended since the course first started. In addition the number of students each year has increased from 12 in1984 to 20 each year. The popularity with students and teachers alike has built a strong basis for the course.
To teach hands-on techniques it is essential to have access to one-to-one tuition. There are as many practical instructors as students. The course dedicated and committed team of teachers return each year. The popularity of the course and venue has built as strong basis for the future.
For the first courses we had the instruments made in university workshops– microelectrode amplifiers, voltage clamps, and patch clamps. Since good commercial instruments became available we have been able to borrow both instruments and expertise from instrument companies for teaching and demonstrating. Amongst our many supporting companies, Scientifica provides the SliceScope Pro systems and PatchStar micromanipulators. This productive two-way dialogue with all the companies has greatly improved the standards of the rigs and we are very grateful for this input to the courses. One of the noticeable changes from the beginning is that now it is much easier to get data, you don't have to solder anything first. But you still need to know what's in the box.