Scientists at the University of Bath in the UK have developed artificial neurons on silicon chips that behave just like the real thing – a first-of-its-kind achievement with enormous scope for medical devices to cure chronic diseases, such as heart failure, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases of neuronal degeneration.
The newly invented artificial neurons also need only one billionth the power of a microprocessor, making them ideally suited for use in medical implants and other bio-electronic devices, reports University of BATH.
The research team was led by the University of Bath and included researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Zurich and Auckland. The researches described their work in a study published in Nature Communications.
Researchers have been attempting to develop artificial neurons for a long time, as it opens up the possibility of curing conditions where neurons are not working properly, have had their processes severed as in spinal cord injury, or have died. For instance, in heart failure, neurons in the base of the brain do not respond properly to nervous system feedback, they in turn do not send the right signals to the heart, which then does not pump as hard as it should. Artificial neurons could repair diseased bio-circuits by replicating their healthy function and responding adequately to biological feedback to restore bodily function.
The researchers accurately replicated the complete dynamics of hippocampal neurons and respiratory neurons from rats, under a wide range of stimuli.
“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,” said lead researcher Professor Alain Nogaret, from the University of Bath Department of Physics.
The new artificial neurons 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.”
This new invention has enormous scope for medical devices. “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. Other possible applications could be in the treatment of conditions like Alzheimer’s and neuronal degenerative diseases more generally,” said Nogaret.