European researchers are several steps closer to fusing computer chips with living mammalian brain matter and getting the two to communicate.
Scientists with the NACHIP project, funded under the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies Commission, recently announced that they had successfully fused mammalian neurons with a silicon chip and had created a “working interface.”
“Computers and brains both work electrically. However, their charge carriers are different,” states Peter Fromherz of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry.
The applications of the science are potentially far-reaching and include helping scientists develop a “map” of the human brain-illustrating how thoughts and emotions rise into consciousness-and enabling a complete understanding of how memories are formed. The research could also lead to the development of new neural prostheses (implants) to combat neurological disorders. Perhaps most significantly, the breakthrough marks an essential step in the development of a computer with an architecturally and structurally “human” brain, a key component in creating a fully functional artificially intelligent computer system.
The researchers are careful to point out that such developments are still years away. In the near term, the technology may be of use to drugmakers. “Pharmaceutical companies could use the chip to test the effect of drugs on neurons, to quickly discover promising avenues of research,” says Stefano Vassanelli, a molecular biologist with the University of Padua in Italy.
The brain’s unique proteins glue the neuron-silicon chip together, providing the “link between the ionic channels of the neurons and semiconductor material in a way that neural electrical signals could be passed to the silicon chip,” says Vassanelli.
The experimenters tested the device by stimulating the neurons and recording which ones were being activated while tracking the signals coming from the chips. The neurons can be stimulated through capacitors, which enables electrical signals to be passed not just from chip to neuron, but from neuron to chip in a primitive, electronic dialogue.
“The availability of involved integrated neuroelectronic systems [nerves interfacing with microchips] will help to unravel the nature of information processing in neuronal [nerve] networks and will give rise to new and fascinating physicalbiological-computational questions,” Fromherz asserts. “Of course, visionary dreams of bioelectronic neurocomputers and microelectronic neuroprosetheses are unavoidable and exciting, but they should not obscure the numerous practical problems.”
Another potential avenue of research is the use of genes to communicate with the neurons. According to Vassanelli, “Genes are where memory comes from, and without them you have no memory or computation. We want to explore a way to use genes to control the neurochip.” -Patrick Tucker
Sources: The Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, Am Klopferspitz 18 D-82152 Martinsried, Germany. Web site http://www.biochem.mpg.de/ home_en.html.
Information Society Technonolgies. Web site http://www.cordis.lu/ist.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2006.