Artificial neurons created on microchip

A major breakthrough for neural technology as scientists reproduce the electrical properties of neurons on a semiconductor chip.

Researchers at Bath have made a world first breakthrough with an artificial chip that mimics the behaviour of neurons. It’s being hailed as a major breakthrough which could hasten treatments for chronic diseases such as dementia, heart failure and many others.

Longevity.Technology: Designing artificial neurons which can emulate the real thing has been a goal for scientists for decades. This breakthrough pushes back the horizon of possibility, opening the way towards a cure for some of the most serious neurodegenerative diseases.

The chip contains artificial neurons which behave in exactly the same way as the real thing; they use only a billionth of the power of a microprocessor making them ideal for use in medical implants or biometric devices.

The team was led by the University of Bath but included researchers from Bristol University, Zurich and Auckland published their findings in Nature Communications.

World First as artificial neurons created on microchip
One of the artificial neuron chips from the team at Bath

Researchers modelled and derived equations to explain how neurons respond to electrical stimuli from other nerves. It’s incredibly complicated as responses are nonlinear. For example, if a signal becomes twice as strong it doesn’t necessary lead to double the reaction.

Using these calculations, the researchers designed chips which could accurately model biological ion channels before proving their chips mimicked living neurons.

Designing realistic artificial neurons has been a major goal for the world of medicine for decades. The team’s success opens the pathway to a world in which doctors can cure conditions in which neurons aren’t working properly, have had their neural processes severed or have ultimately died.

The research comes at a time of frantic activity in the neurology sector [1]. The number of neurotech start-ups is on the rise. Exciting start-ups are developing technology which can combine artificial and biological intelligence via a neural network.

In the more immediate term these technologies are enhancing cognitive performance but in the longer term they raise the possibility of replacing faulty neurons and creating a permanent artificial singularity.

The potential is enormous as project lead Professor Alain Nogaret from the University of Bath’s Department of Physics explained. “Until now, neurons have been like black boxes, but we have managed to open the black box and peer inside,” he said. “Our work is paradigm changing because it provides a robust method to reproduce the electrical properties of real neurons in minute detail [2].”



Image credit: Bath University