In the not too distant future, medical devices fitted with artificial neurons could be used in the battle against Alzheimer's and other degenerative neurological conditions.
Scientists from the University of Bath and the University of Bristol in the UK have developed a first-of-its-kind silicon chip that behaves just like a brain cell, capable of registering and responding to electrical signals from the nervous system with all the complexity of a mammal's neurons. Furthermore, it’s extremely efficient and requires very little electricity to work its magic.
Simply put, the language of the brain is essentially electrical signals being fired “on and off” by neurons, not too dissimilar to the binary nature of electronics. The newly developed bionic neuron takes note of the electrical properties of organic brain cells and applies them to a small synthetic circuit board.
“Until now neurons have been like black boxes, but we have managed to open the black box and peer inside. Our work is paradigm-changing because it provides a robust method to reproduce the electrical properties of real neurons in minute detail,” Professor Alain Nogaret, lead author from the University of Bath Department of Physics, explained in a statement.
"But it's wider than that, because our neurons only need 140 nanoWatts of power. That's a billionth the power requirement of a microprocessor, which other attempts to make synthetic neurons have used. This makes the neurons well suited for bio-electronic implants to treat chronic diseases.”
Reporting in the journal Nature Communications, the team mimicked the way mammalian neurons work by studying the activity of different types of neurons in rats under a range of stimuli. This data was then used to program the small analog electronic circuit. One of the main challenges in doing this is the "non-linear" nature of neural responses. For example, the reaction from a neuron might not necessarily be twice as strong just because the signal it receives is twice as strong.
Nevertheless, the multi-disciplined team used their expertise in physics, neuroscience, and medicine to jump these hurdles. The result was a tiny electrical circuit that can recreate the behavior of an organic neuron with 94-97 percent accuracy.
According to the researchers, the knowledge gained from this study could potentially be used as bio-electronic implants to replace damaged neuron circuits associated with a range of neurological conditions.
“We're developing smart pacemakers that won't just stimulate the heart to pump at a steady rate but use these neurons to respond in real-time to demands placed on the heart – which is what happens naturally in a healthy heart,” added Professor Nogaret. “Other possible applications could be in the treatment of conditions like Alzheimer’s and neuronal degenerative diseases more generally.”