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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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