A team of international scientists, which include a Professor from New Zealand’s University of Auckland, had invented artificial neurons on silicon chips, which behave like the real thing.
As reported, the researchers have successfully reproduced the electrical properties of biological neurons onto semiconductor chips.
Benefits of the technology
The first-of-its-kind achievement gives enormous scope for medical devices to alleviate medical conditions such a neuronal degeneration, spinal cord injury and paralysis, and heart failure.
Critically, the artificial neurons behave just like biological neurons.
Designing artificial neurons that respond to electrical signals from the nervous system like real neurons has been a major goal in medicine for decades.
This opens up the possibility of curing conditions where neurons are not working properly, or have had their processes severed as in spinal cord injury, or have died.
Artificial neurons could repair diseased bio-circuits by replicating their healthy function and responding adequately to biological feedback to restore bodily function.
Moreover, they only need 140 nanoWatts, which is one-billionth the power of a microprocessor.
This makes the neurons well suited for use in medical implants and other bio-electronic devices in order to treat chronic diseases.
The research team, led by the University of Bath and including researchers from the Universities of Auckland, Bristol and Zurich, describe the artificial neurons in a study published in Nature Communications.
Professor Paton, from the University of Auckland, explained that this opens up enormous opportunities for smarter medical devices that drive towards personalised medicine approaches to a range of diseases and disabilities.
Professor Alain Nogaret, a physicist from the University of Bath, shared that their work provides a robust method to reproduce the electrical properties of real neurons in minute detail.
The researchers successfully modelled and derived equations to explain how neurons respond to electrical stimuli from other nerves.
This is complicated by the fact that neurons are inherently ‘non-linear’.
Non-linear means that if a signal becomes twice as strong it would not necessarily elicit twice as big a reaction. It might be thrice bigger or only half the size.
They then designed silicon chips that accurately modelled biological ion channels, before proving that their silicon neurons precisely mimicked real, living neurons responding to a range of stimulations.
The researchers accurately replicated the complete dynamics of hippocampal neurons, which are crucial for learning and memory, and respiratory neurons that are essential for breathing, under a wide range of stimuli.
The approach has combined several breakthroughs. The precise parameters that control any neuron’s behaviour can be accurately estimated with high certainty.
Physical models of the hardware were created. They have demonstrated its ability to successfully mimic the behaviour of real living neurons.
They can effectively mimic different types and functions of a wide range of complex mammalian neurons.
Professor Giacomo Indiveri, from the University of Zurich, added how this work opens new horizons for neuromorphic chip design because of its unique approach to identifying crucial analogue circuit parameters.
The study was funded by a European Union Horizon 2020 Future Emerging Technologies Programme grant and a doctoral studentship funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC).