A team of scientists 1 at two British universities, Bath and Bristol, have developed neuron-like chips that could revert the neurological damage caused by neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. These chips do not only resemble neuronal function but are also very efficient and low energy consuming. Can we ask for more?
Obviously, when I say chip, I mean a silicon chip, like those powering your computer or your mobile. However, this one actually behaves just like a brain cell, registering and responding to the electrical signals typical among neurons in the nervous system.
How they trained those chips to respond like neurons, you ask
It might seem like a small thing but to get here, the researchers had to combine knowledge in physics, biology and computer science to resemble neuronal function. First they had to analyse the intracellular ionic currents and transmembrane voltages. Then, they had to study the different patterns of activity of various types of neurons in rat hippocampus and respiratory cortex in response to a range of stimuli. Later, they had to use this data to program the analog electronic circuit in the chip to respond just like those neurons would under the same stimulation protocols. And so, they achieved a chip’s accuracy higher than 95% percent.
Like we already mentioned, these chips only need about 140 nanowatts of power, while your mobile needs in the range of the tens of miliwatts. A difference in scale of about a million times!!
This little energy demand, coupled with the ability to replicate the non-linearity (a stronger input current does not necessarily mean a stronger output one) of neural responses, make these neuron-like chips a powerful candidate for future bio-implants, with the potential to help revert neurological damage.
However, it is early days for this technology. That’s why I would not like to raise unheeded hope at this stage. It is a promise, but not for any time soon!