At your fingertips
Scientific researchers from Britain and New Zealand have built minuscule chips, small enough to fit on a fingertip, which are almost identical to nerve cells present in human biology.
The artificial neurons could provide a new way to combat diseases affecting the nervous system – such as Alzheimer’s, certain types of heart failure, or a spinal cord injury.
Nerve cells, or neurons, exist throughout the brain and the nervous system and rapidly send electrical signals, relaying information from the brain to the body.
A team from the University of Bath came up with breakthrough technology to replicate this natural circuit, by using a combination of computation, maths and chip design. The researchers were able to replicate the dynamics of individual nerve cells in the brain required for memory and breathing.
Alain Nogaret, a physicist at the University of Bath, commented, “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.”
The creation of synthetic neurons that have the ability to respond to electrical signals from the nervous system has been a goal in medicine for decades.
The project has opened up a range of medical possibilities, meaning that one day, the brain chips could be used to treat life-threatening diseases where neurons degenerate or die – such as Alzheimer’s.
Co-researcher, Prof Julian Paton, said that the neurons could even act as an intermediary between a synthetic limb and the brain. He commented, “Replicating the response of respiratory neurons in bioelectronics that can be miniaturised and implanted is very exciting”.
Paton explained that the chips could be connected to sensors in prosthetic limbs so that you would be able to sense when you touch things and be able to gauge the grip strength you would need – just as the brain would to a biological limb.
Experts think that it will not be long until silicon neurons are used within the brain for biological repair – an advancement that could change the face of medicine as we know it.
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