For the last several decades medicine has made great strides using artificial devices to replace damaged organs and body parts. From artificial hips and knee joint replacements, to pacemakers and breast implants, these devices are commonly used to fight the diseases of aging and, well, keep people alive. Now, scientists are turning their attention to the brain.
In a major breakthrough announced late last year, a scientific team has created tiny “brain chips” that behave exactly like real live brain neurons.
Their discovery has the potential to not only cure Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, but also heal conditions such as heart failure and paralysis as well.
Living Cells Mimicked Artificially
Neurons are core cells not only of the brain, but the spinal cord and nervous system, too. They carry information throughout the body using chemical and electrical signals to help coordinate the functions of life.
Replacing faulty, severed, or dead neurons with artificial ones has huge potential to heal a wide range of health problems and disabilities.
But developing artificial neurons that respond to electrical signals from the nervous system has been a major challenge.
Many different types of stimuli need to be considered and each one can have a different strength of impulse that requires a different response. If a signal doubles in size, the response could be three times as much or even half as much. This makes modeling neuronal behavior a Herculean task.
Even so, scientists at the University of Bath in England, together with colleagues from New Zealand and Switzerland, became the first in the world to successfully transfer the electrical properties of brain cells on to circuits made from silicon. They published their findings in the journal Nature Communications last December.
Artificial Brain Cells for Memory and Learning
The scientists used their artificial brain chips to successfully replicate the behavior of rat cells from the hippocampus. This is a major area of the brain that’s key to memory and learning. They also used their artificial brain chips to replicate respiratory cells from the brain stem that control breathing.
They successfully mimicked the complete dynamics of these living neurons in artificial, silicon form. That means these artificial neurons responded to a wide range of stimuli and electrical signals in an almost identical way to their biological equivalents.
Smart Pacemakers Mimic Healthy Heart Tissue
Project leader Alain Nogaret explains the importance of this first-of-its-kind achievement.
“Our work is paradigm-changing because it provides a robust method to reproduce the electrical properties of real neurons in minute detail.
“But it’s wider than that, because 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. This makes the neurons well suited for bio-electronic implants to treat chronic diseases.
“For example, 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.”
Could Be Useful for Controlling Everything from Blood Pressure to Breathing
Another member of the team, Professor Julian Paton from the University of Auckland, believes the artificial brain chips might one day be used to control blood pressure, manage the release of insulin in diabetics, and kick-start breathing again in patients with sleep apnea.
“Replicating the response of respiratory neurons in bio-electronics that can be miniaturized and implanted,” he said, “is very exciting and opens up enormous opportunities for smarter medical devices that drive towards personalized medicine approaches to a range of diseases and disabilities.
“We are truly approaching a bionic era in medicine.”