Science

Scientists make artificial and biological neurons communicate over the internet

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Despite the continued assurances of pioneers like Elon Musk, the idea of a biological brain interfacing with a computer still sounds like science fiction. But scientists in the U.K., Switzerland, Germany, and Italy are here to remind you that it really isn’t. In a recent experiment, the researchers fired up a working neural network that let biological and silicon-based artificial brain cells communicate with one another over an internet connection.

At present, it’s still early stages for the project. The experiment involved cultivating rat neurons in a laboratory that were used to signal to nanoelectronic synapses, called memristors, built by the University of Southampton. The spiking biological neurons in Italy were then transmitted to artificial neurons located in Zurich. The reverse communication was also carried out. The result was a simple demonstration showing that artificial and biological neurons can be made to communicate bidirectionally and in real time.

“For the first time ever, we have demonstrated that artificial neurons on a chip can be connected to brain neurons and communicate by speaking the same ‘spikes’ language,” Stefano Vassanelli, a professor in the department of biomedical sciences at the University of Padova in Italy. “Artificial and brain neurons were connected through nanoscale memristors that were capable [of emulating] basic functions of real synapses, those natural connections between neurons that are responsible for signal transmission between neurons that take over most of the processing in the brain.”

The “hybrid brain” Vassanelli describes sounds like it would be most useful for a kind of neural implant that would allow the brain’s neural networks and A.I. neural nets to understand one another. But he said that there is another application he has in mind.

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“In the long term, the idea is to use artificial networks of spiking neurons to restore function in focal brain diseases, such as Parkinson’s, stroke or epilepsy,” Vassanelli said. “Once embedded in brain implants, silicon spiking neurons will act as a sort of neuroprosthesis where artificial neurons will adaptively stimulate dysfunctional native neurons facilitating recovery or even rescuing functional losses.”

The team is currently working on a European Union-funded project in which the technology is demonstrated in a living animal, along with showcasing a brain-inspired neuroprosthesis prototype.

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