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Artificial Neurons: Repairing the Brain with Silicon

Posted on 22 January 2020

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In this fascinating Nature Communications article, researchers describe the first ever machine that accurately mimics the behaviour of a neuron. The creation of an artificial neuron is no small feat. Electrical activity within neurons is controlled by chemical signals, meaning that the frequency and amplitude with which they fire is not linear, and depends on many variables. Researchers used data collected from real neurons to produce a model of how they responded to different stimuli. They then tested that model against the original neurons to confirm their responses were accurate.

“Until now neurons have been like black boxes, but we have managed to open the black box and peer inside,” said project leader Alain Nogaret. “Our work is paradigm-changing because it provides a robust method to reproduce the electrical properties of real neurons in minute detail.”

The average human begins to lose neurons at the age of 20, and will have lost 10% of their neurons by the age of 75. In dementia, the death of neurons in large numbers results in debilitating disease. Replacing these neurons with artificial replicas would theoretically allow us to restore function in the ageing brain.

We may have to wait quite some time before this sci-fi concept becomes a reality. The chips produced are approximately 0.1mm in diameter, while some neurons are half that size, and participate in highly complex networks of interaction that we may struggle to mimic. However, there may be more immediate applications. Researchers are already looking at using artificial neurons in pacemakers, allowing them to respond dynamically to electrical signals.

“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.

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