Despite tremendous advances in the field of medicine, researchers have had a difficult time finding breakthroughs for problems affecting the nervous system. Perhaps that is because the body relies on a network of more than 100 billion neurons to carry out its functions.
Now, researchers from the University of Bath are hoping to do the impossible and replicate that system. A team recently found success with a silicon microchip that fits on a fingertip and is “nearly identical” to a human nerve cell. The innovation could be the key to treating spinal cord injuries and nervous system diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The idea of creating hardware that simulates biological cells isn’t new. Back in September, a team created a robot that uses muscle cells to move around. This time, the technique is a little different. The University of Bath researchers created a low-power silicon microchip that mimics nerve cells.
Alain Nogaret, one of the study’s authors, said, “Until now 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.”
Published in the journal Nature Communications, the team’s paper explains how the tiny chip is able to replicate the actions of individual nerve cells. Thanks to several synthetic ion channels, it simulates the electrical activity of a neuron. The team compared the actions of their cell-on-a-chip model to brain stem neurons from rats. In 60 trials, the chip recapitulated the effects seen in real nerve cells every time.
The results of this experiment provide hope that synthetic neurons may be a realistic part of treating nervous system diseases. However, there is still more work to be done.
Researchers will need to factor in dendrites as well. These arm-like projections send signals between the nerves. Before the artificial neuron tech is actually applicable for non-lab use, it will need some feature that simulates dendritic structures. Fortunately, the chip is ready to have additional parts added to it.
The study’s authors hope that their research will help treat spinal cord injuries and Alzheimer’s disease. Since the synthetic nerve cell chip is able to replicate hippocampal neurons, those responsible for memories, it may be able to do just that. Meanwhile, it was also able to mimic neurons that control unconscious functions like breathing. Thus, it could help treat those with a damaged spinal cord.
Moving forward, the chip may be used as an implant to help correct these issues. If scientists can find a way to integrate it with the body’s natural nervous system, it could be a revolutionary new treatment method. It certainly seems tamer than Elon Musk’s Neuralink system.