First artificial neurons ever created effectively mimic the real thing
A team of international researchers has achieved a world-first breakthrough, decades in the making, creating artificial neurons with the ability to behave exactly like real living neurons. The technology may still be years away from clinical uses in human subjects, but the innovation paves the way for everything from treating neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, to enabling novel pacemakers that stimulate neurons regulating the pumping of the heart.
Creating artificial neurons has been a multifaceted challenge scientists have been battling for years. As well as the obvious physical engineering hurdle in developing miniature hardware that functionally resembles neurons, the researchers needed to create complex mathematical models that could control the complicated non-linear electrical activity in the artificial neurons.
“Our approach combines several breakthroughs,” explains Alain Nogaret, a University of Bath researcher leading the project. “We can very accurately estimate the precise parameters that control any neurons behavior with high certainty. We have created physical models of the hardware and demonstrated its ability to successfully mimic the behavior of real living neurons. Our third breakthrough is the versatility of our model which allows for the inclusion of different types and functions of a range of complex mammalian neurons.”
Two kinds of artificial neurons were effectively demonstrated in the newly published study – respiratory and hippocampal neurons. These were artificially created, and shown to accurately replicate a complete range of activity compared to their biological counterparts.
“Replicating the response of respiratory neurons in bioelectronics that can be miniaturized and implanted 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,” says Julian Paton, a co-author on the new research.
These miniature silicon microchips offer a vast array of hypothetical uses. One possibility is a kind of smart pacemaker that not only offers electrical stimulation to the heart but also communicates with a specific community of neurons in the base of the brain known to play a major role in heart failure. Another outcome is using the artificial neurons to replace diseased neuronal pathways damaged by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“Until now neurons have been like black boxes, but we have managed to open the black box and peer inside,” explains Nogaret. “Our work is paradigm changing because it provides a robust method to reproduce the electrical properties of real neurons in minute detail.”
In theory, the technology could be utilized in the future to create new neural pathways that help realize the kind of brain-machine interface proposed by Elon Musk’s Neuralink start-up. However, the researchers behind this landmark project are much more interested in direct health outcomes, such as finding ways to replace diseased or damaged neuronal networks in human subjects. Needless to say, the work faces many years of testing and trials before it reaches real-world human applications, but this study is a fundamental step-forward in opening new horizons for future researchers.
The new research was published in the journal Nature Communications.
Source: University of Bath