Columns Education

Climbing assay: A cost-effective way to investigate neurodegeneration in an undergraduate laboratory

Aishwarya Segu

A mention of neuroscience’ might stir up thoughts of cutting-edge brain scanning and imaging techniques and other complex, expensive and highly specialized procedures. However, such techniques might be inaccessible to undergraduate students and educators of basic sciences due to financial constraints or challenges in technical training. This article describes a simple, budget-friendly assay that can be used in such a setting.

Aishwarya climbing assay title image
OIST from Onna Village, Japan, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the realm of global health concerns, an overwhelming 90% of the disorders in focus belong to the category of neurodegenerative disorders (NDD), a group of conditions related to or occurring in the brain. Neurodegeneration, thus, is a sought-after subject of research. 

Unfortunately, practical training in this subject at the undergraduate level is challenging due to costly experimental procedures and equipment, which most of the colleges and universities in India cannot afford. Thankfully, research methodologies need not always be extravagant. In this article, we will explore how a simple and straightforward climbing assay serves as a valuable experimental module to study neurodegeneration in an undergraduate laboratory setting. 

What is neurodegeneration?

Neurodegeneration refers to the gradual and progressive degeneration of neurons, the functional units of the brain. It is an inevitable process which gets amplified during a disorder. The causes of neurodegeneration encompass genetic, environmental, and metabolic factors. The common symptoms include motor and sensory function disability, loss of memory and seizures. Its clinical implications and its lack of cure make it an active area of research. One of the widely used experimental strategies to understand neurodegeneration is the climbing assay. It is a simple, non-cumbersome, cost-effective assay, which measures the motor ability in organisms.

The climbing assay: An experimental module for studying neurodegeneration

Locomotion is a tightly regulated neuronal function. Most of the neurodegenerative disorders display defects in motor coordination. The climbing assay is a simple behavioural experiment to study motor coordination in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster). The experimental setup is minimalistic and cost-effective, requiring just a container or a column, a platform and the test organisms (fruit flies or worms). 

The column can be as basic as a vial or a graduated cylinder. The flies are introduced into the measuring cylinder/​glass vial containing no food, just prior to the assay. The cylinder is covered so that flies don’t escape. Flies are known to climb against the gravity. Thus, when enclosed in a container they naturally are prompted to move upward. This ability is subsequently calculated based on the time taken for the flies to move a predetermined length. 

A schematic of the climbing assay for Drosophila. Image by Aishwarya Segu and Samanwitha Rao

For instance, the number of flies that cross a 5 cm mark from the bottom of the vial/​cylinder in under 3 seconds is counted. This gives the climbing index of the flies. As the flies age their climbing ability decreases. This happens in the case of NDD too. The detailed step-by-step protocol for conducting the assay is available here. A similar approach is also available in mice known as the gripping assay, which measures the paw strength in mice.


The climbing assay offers a budget-friendly experiment that requires no additional investment or specialized equipment. The assay, with its simplicity, cost-effectiveness, and ability to provide quantitative data, offers a valuable tool for researchers and educators around the world. 

Its adaptability makes it an ideal candidate for undergraduate laboratories seeking to explore aspects of ageing and neurodegeneration. In a relatively short span of two to three months, students can design and execute experimental modules that delve into these crucial areas, fostering hands-on learning experiences that contribute to our understanding of these complex processes. 

Imparting this module in undergraduate education paves the way to harness bright students as future scientists. Furthermore, displaying a realistic scenario of ongoing research in the field paves the way to a better education system. The importance of imparting cost-effective yet reliable research at undergraduate education also inspires greater innovation which ultimately leads to the betterment of the country.

Written By