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Semiconductors Developed to Emulate Nerve Cells

Solid state neuron

Solid state neuron chip (University of Bath)

4 Dec. 2019. Physicists and neuroscientists created semiconductors that in lab simulations and tests with animal models perform like nerve cells for biological functions. A team from University of Bath in the U.K. and other institutions describes the devices in yesterday’s issue of the journal Nature Communications.

Researchers led by University of Bath physicist Alain Nogaret aim to advance medical devices treating chronic disease that correct for defects in heart and lung functions by improving the electronic signals sent to these organs. Neurons, or nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord send these signals to organs, but up to now efforts to recreate these signals in silicon chips did not adequately capture the complex, non-linear features of nerve cell signals in their natural state.

The team from the U.K., Switzerland, and New Zealand devised an analogue circuit — a device that sends continuous electronic signals — that the authors say emulates the signals produced by nerve cells controlling functions of organs in the body. The researchers designed the chips to simulate the protein interactions in nerve cells that produce electronic signals. Only in this case, those protein interactions are modeled and programmed into circuits the researchers call solid state neurons.

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

Nogaret and colleagues bench-tested their solid state neurons in the lab, which show a scaled-down circuit performs similarly to established models of nerve cell signaling, with more than 96 percent accuracy. The researchers then devised more full-scale circuits that produce signals similar to nerve cells in rats for controlling respiratory functions and in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Those tests show 94 to 97 percent agreement between signaling patterns of the semiconductors and animal nerve cells.

The sold state neurons have one more desirable feature: low power needs. The respiratory chip, for example, consumes 139 nanoWatts of power, which the researchers say is one billionth of the power typically used by a microprocessor. As a result, say the authors, these chips would be suitable for implanted medical devices.

The team believes solid state neurons can encourage a new generation of medical devices that better respond to the individual needs of patients. Nogaret notes, “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.”

As reported in Science & Enterprise in February 2017, Nogaret leads an EU-funded initiative to design a new type of pacemaker device that adapts to a host of signals in the cardiovascular system and regulates multiple heart functions, called the Adaptive-Cardio-Respiratory Pacemaker, or CresPace, project. He adds, “Other possible applications could be in the treatment of conditions like Alzheimer’s and neuronal degenerative diseases more generally.”

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