Neuromuscular junction-on-a-chip: ALS disease modeling and read-out development in microfluidic devices

J Neurochem. 2021 May;157(3):393-412. doi: 10.1111/jnc.15289. Epub 2021 Jan 18.


Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a fatal and progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting upper and lower motor neurons with no cure available. Clinical and animal studies reveal that the neuromuscular junction (NMJ), a synaptic connection between motor neurons and skeletal muscle fibers, is highly vulnerable in ALS and suggest that NMJ defects may occur at the early stages of the disease. However, mechanistic insight into how NMJ dysfunction relates to the onset and progression of ALS is incomplete, which hampers therapy development. This is, in part, caused by a lack of robust in vitro models. The ability to combine microfluidic and induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technologies has opened up new avenues for studying molecular and cellular ALS phenotypes in vitro. Microfluidic devices offer several advantages over traditional culture approaches when modeling the NMJ, such as the spatial separation of different cell types and increased control over the cellular microenvironment. Moreover, they are compatible with 3D cell culture, which enhances NMJ functionality and maturity. Here, we review how microfluidic technology is currently being employed to develop more reliable in vitro NMJ models. To validate and phenotype such models, various morphological and functional read-outs have been developed. We describe and discuss the relevance of these read-outs and specifically illustrate how these read-outs have enhanced our understanding of NMJ pathology in ALS. Finally, we share our view on potential future directions and challenges.

Keywords: ALS; iPSC; microfluidics; motor neurons; neuromuscular junction; organ-on-a-chip.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / physiopathology*
  • Animals
  • Computer Simulation*
  • Humans
  • Lab-On-A-Chip Devices*
  • Microfluidics / methods*
  • Motor Neurons / pathology
  • Neuromuscular Junction / physiopathology*