Artificial Neurons Fire in Life-Like Patterns
Artificial Neurons Fire in Life-Like Patterns

Artificial Neurons Fire in Life-Like Patterns

The silicon chips receive and send electrical signals, recreating activity from neurons in the rat brain that play a role in breathing and thinking.

Ashley Yeager
Ashley Yeager
Dec 4, 2019

ABOVE: Artificial neurons on this silicon chip receive and send electrical signals just as biological neurons do.
UNIVERSITY OF BATH

Synthetic neural circuits made from silicon can accurately mimic the electrical properties of nerve cells, researchers reported yesterday (December 3) in Nature Communications. The research aims to lead to the development of implantable bionic neurons that would help to restore brain circuits that have lost their electrical connection and might help to combat paralysis and possibly diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

“Any area where you have some degenerative disease, such as Alzheimer’s, or where the neurons stop firing properly because of age, disease, or injury, then in theory you could replace the faulty biocircuit with a synthetic circuit,” study coauthor Alain Nogaret of the University of Bath tells The Guardian.

In the study, Nogaret and colleagues combined mathematics, computation, and chip design to model the firing patterns of a neuron from the rat hippocampus—a brain region involved in learning and memory—and of a neuron in the animal’s brainstem where breathing is controlled. The team then reproduced those firing patterns from the computer model in silicon chips. 

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

He notes to The Guardian that the aim of the research is not to build an entire artificial brain but to develop bionic neurons and circuits to help in treating disease.

See “Building a Silicon Brain

“Because the approach is detailed and laboriously painstaking, it can really only be applied in practice to smallish neural units, such as the respiratory neurons,” Stephen Furber, a professor of computer engineering at the University of Manchester who was not involved in the study, tells The Guardian. “But there are quite a few critical small neural control circuits that are vital to keeping us alive.”

Ashley Yeager is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at ayeager@the-scientist.com. Follow her on Twitter @AshleyJYeager.