Both LiveScience.com and New Scientist are reporting today that a team of Italian and German neuroscientists working in conjunction with mobile chip maker Infineon have created a “neuro-chip,” a hybrid microchip that interfaces living neurons with traditional silicon circuitry. In addition to providing new insights into the brain’s inner workings, the groundbreaking work could one day lead to organic computers that use living brain cells for memory or to the creation of prosthetic devices for treating neurological disorders.
The team started with a tiny, 1 mm square microchip containing 16,384 transistors and hundreds of capacitors. Using the same proteins that bind together neurons in the brain, the scientists proceeded to “glue” specialized rat neurons to the chip.
The transistors on the microchip record the signals from the firing neurons. In order to increase the strength of the signal between the neurons and the chip, the researchers added additional pores to the neurons by genetically modifying them. When a neuron fires it is through these pores and across the binding proteins that sodium ions flow, resulting in the change in electric charge the transistors measure.
Conversely, the capacitors stimulate the neurons. When a charge is applied to the capacitors they create a similar ionic gradient that is detected by the neurons.
This neuro-chip is not the first neuron computer interface, but the quantity of its individual neural connections is far greater than in any previous efforts. The technology is still in its infancy, however, and is years away from being useful for treating neurological disorders or for creating hybrid computers. Although, the scientists do believe the chips can already be used by pharmaceutical companies for testing the effects of drugs on neurons.