World-first artificial neurons

 A Kiwi researcher is part of a ground-breaking team to have has succeeded in creating artificial neurons that behave like real neurons, paving the way for smarter medical devices.

University of Auckland’s Professor Julian Paton is a member of a group of international scientists that has successfully reproduced the electrical properties of biological neurons onto semiconductor silicon chips, which could have huge benefits in neuronal degeneration, spinal cord injury, paralysis, heart failure, eye disease and more.

“Replicating the response of neurons in bioelectronics that can be miniaturised and implanted is very exciting and opens up enormous opportunities for smarter medical devices that drive towards personalised medicine approaches to a range of diseases and disabilities; we are truly approaching a bionic era in medicine,” said Prof Paton.

Importantly, the artificial neurons not only behave just like biological neurons but only need one billionth the power of a microprocessor, making them ideally suited for use in medical implants and other bio-electronic devices, he said.

Designing artificial neurons that respond to electrical signals from the nervous system, like real neurons, has been a major goal in medicine for decades and opens up the possibility of curing conditions where neurons are not working properly or have had their processes severed as in spinal cord injury or have died, researchers explained. Artificial neurons could repair diseased bio-circuits by replicating their healthy function and responding adequately to biological feedback to restore bodily function.

“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,” said lead researcher Professor Alain Nogaret.

The study, led by the University of Bath, included researchers from the Universities of Auckland, Bristol and Zurich, and was published in Nature Communications.

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