Scientists have developed the world’s first electronic multi-state memory cell that imitates the way the brain stores and processes information. The study, published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, could be a key step to creating a "brain-like" system. Researchers from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) hope the nano memory cell could one day lead to successful treatments for debilitating neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
The device is an ultra-thin film that is 10,000 times thinner than a human hair. The multi-state memory cell is able to store, process and remember a lot more information than traditional electronic memory cells.
“This is the closest we have come to creating a brain-like system with memory that learns and stores analog information and is quick at retrieving this stored information,” said project leader Dr. Sharath Sriram in a statement.
“The human brain is an extremely complex analog computer… Its evolution is based on its previous experiences, and up until now this functionality has not been able to be adequately reproduced with digital technology,” he added.
Researchers liken the discovery to an old black and white camera that is now able to take pictures in color. Previous electronic memory cells could only store a single digit—either one or zero—while the new device can store a range of different numbers.
As explained by lead author Dr. Hussein Nili, the new memory cell differs to older models in two main ways: The team introduced defects, or controlled faults, in the cell’s material, and added metallic atoms to it. In doing so, the team was able to bestow the device with the ability to process multiple threads of information, much like what goes on in our brain. Importantly, "this also means that the memory element’s behaviour is dependent on past experiences," Nili says. According to the team, this could be key to the development of a "bionic brain," whereby researchers reproduce the human brain outside the body.
“If you could replicate a brain outside the body, it would minimize ethical issues involved in treating and experimenting on the brain which can lead to better understanding of neurological conditions,” Dr. Nili said.