Researchers at the University of Bath in the UK have developed low-power silicon chips that mimic the electrical activity of neurons. This breakthrough could enable the small chips to function as artificial neurons in numerous implants and medical devices, and the technology has significant potential in treating a wide range of chronic diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases and heart failure.
Researchers have been attempting to develop artificial neurons for a long time. Such technology would be extremely useful in a wide variety of diseases and conditions. For instance, artificial neurons could be used to replace damaged neurons, such as those in spinal cord injuries, or dysfunctional neurons, such as those in the brain that fail to send the correct signals to the heart in cases of heart failure.
However, biological systems are extremely complex and often unpredictable, and don’t easily translate into silicon hardware. Neurons receive electrical signals from other neurons, but don’t always respond predictably to these. However, these UK researchers used large-scale electrophysiological recording data to understand the activity of neurons so that they could successfully model their behavior on a silicon chip.
“Until now neurons have been like black boxes, but we have managed to open the black box and peer inside,” said Professor Alain Nogaret, a researcher involved in the study. “Our work is paradigm changing because it provides a robust method to reproduce the electrical properties of real neurons in minute detail.”
The researchers have shown that their silicon “neurons” mimic the activity of biological neurons accurately in response to a range of stimulations. Incredibly, the silicon neurons can mimic the activity of individual ion channels on neurons, and so far, the research team has created silicon mimics of respiratory and hippocampal neurons.
The new chips also require very low levels of power to operate. “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,” explained Nogaret. “This makes the neurons well suited for bio-electronic implants to treat chronic diseases.”
The chips have a wide array of potential applications. “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,” said Nogaret. “Other possible applications could be in the treatment of conditions like Alzheimer’s and neuronal degenerative diseases more generally.”
See a video about the new technology below.
Study in Nature Communications: Optimal solid state neurons
Source: University of Bath