Researchers have created the first artificial digital neuron based on silicon in a laboratory, which could be implanted in a person to treat Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
A team led by scientists at the University of Bath in the UK has created the miniature low-power device to repair nerve circuits, both to repair the brain and those neurons essential to the function of the heart. Their findings, entitled “Optimal solid state neurons” were published Dec. 3 in Nature.
The solid-state neurons (SSNs) that the team created “respond nearly identically to biological neurons under stimulation,” they said in their research findings. “This approach offers a route for repairing diseased biocircuits and emulating their function with biomedical implants that can adapt to biofeedback.”
Among various experiments, the team in one example modeled the biocircuits of the respiratory and cardiac rhythms of the respiratory neuron found in a rat’s brain stem. If the respiratory and cardiac rhythms are not coupled properly through age or disease, the result could be sleep apnea and heart failure. A device like the SSN that adapts to biofeedback in the same way as respiratory neurons “may offer a much-needed therapy for heart failure…Our approach combines several breakthroughs, which open new horizons to neuromorphic engineering from programming analog computers to soft bioimplants.”
In conducting the research, the team relied on large data sets to average fluctuations in membrane voltage over wide time windows. “This minimizes uncertainty,” the researchers said. One of the team’s several breakthroughs was also deriving a physical model of hardware to successfully assimilate biological neurons and then making it versatile enough to deal with complex neurons in mammals.
“Until now, neurons have been like black boxes, but we have managed to open the black box and peer inside,” said Prof. Alain Nogaret from the University of Bath department of physics in Neuroscience News. “Our work is paradigm changing because it provides a robust method to reproduce the electrical properties of real neurons in minute detail.” He noted that the SSNs only need 140 nanowatts of power to function, about one-billionth of the power of a microprocessor.
The team is developing smart pacemakers that won’t only stimulate the heart to pump at a steady rate but will use neurons in real time to respond to demands placed on the heart, as occurs in nature, he said.
The research was supported by the European Union. Participants in the team included four scientists in the physics department at the University of Bath: Kamal Abu-Hassan, Joseph Taylor, Paul Morris and Alain Nogoret. They were joined by two scientists at the school of neuroscience at the University of Bristol in the UK, two scientists from the Institute of Neuroinformatics and the University of Zurich in Switzerland and a scientist from the department of physiology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.