Scientists finally develop artificial neurons that mimic our brain cells

The tiny computer chips can pave the way for smarter medical devices in the future

By Faisal Khan | 13 December 2019
Medium

(Credit: University of Bath)

Neurons in a human brain have been somewhat of a mystery for scientists. Unlike the traditional electrical circuits, the inner workings of the biological circuitry in the brain have always been less than predictable, apart from the complex biology they exhibit.

Scientists at the University of Bath now seem to have decoded the bizarre behavior of our brain cells and replicated it on tiny silicon chips. Researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Zurich and Auckland collaborated on this effort.

Designing artificial neurons has been a challenge for medical researchers for decades. The invention opens doors for curing diseases where the biological neurons are not functioning properly. The silicon chips can be used to pass signals between damaged cells while utilizing only one-billionth of the power of a standard microprocessor.

“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.”
~ Bath Physicist Alain Nogaret

These chips can be used for medical implants to help patients suffering from heart failure or Alzheimer’s. In the case of heart failure, brain neurons don’t respond to the nervous system feedback thus not sending the proper signal to the heart, which in turn does not pump the blood as hard as it should.

The team conducted successful animal trials on rat brains using two types of brain neurons on how they fire in response to the stimuli. The trial included respiratory neurons responsible for breathing and ones in the hippocampus. The responses were modeled by a simulation which was then translated into silicon chips.

The eventual goal is to use these neurons to build smarter medical devices that can more effectively cater to the needs of the patients. Some researchers are already developing smart pacemakers by embedding these chips. Tests in rats confirmed that these devices proved more effective than standard pacemakers.

Recreating biological activity on electrical circuits can go a long way in creating a paradigm shift in personalized medical care.

Complete Research was published in the Journal Nature.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Faisal Khan is a prolific Canada-based tech blogger and influencer. He is the founder and editor of the Technicity publication which focuses on technical, scientific and financial knowledge sharing. Follow him on Twitter @fklivestolearn.

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