The Updated Brain - Neurons of Tomorrow: Natural Scouts Man-Made
Image:An artist’s illustration shows nerve cells, purple, exploring tiny tubes made of semiconductors.
Brains and computers have a lot in common. They both process information, they both need energy to work and they’re both made of many complicated parts that work together. In the world of science fiction, computers and brains have been mixed and melded for decades. The results include Darth Vader from “Star Wars,” the “Six Million Dollar Man,” any of a number of “Terminators” and the human-looking cyborgs from “Battlestar Galactica.”
In real-world laboratories, a brain-computer meld is more difficult. Experiment by experiment, scientists are exploring ways to bring brains and computers together.
In one recent experiment, scientists from the University of Wisconsin–Madison brought together neurons and semiconductors. In the brain, cells called neurons communicate with each other. On a computer chip, materials called semiconductors help transmit signals and keep information flowing. The Wisconsin researchers decided to grow one (neurons) on the other (semiconductors).
First, they built tiny tubes out of silicon and germanium, two materials that have been used as semiconductors. Then they laid the tubes out in various shapes and patterns. Finally, they added some mouse neurons to the mix to see what would happen. The neurons grew around the structures — and even sent teeny extensions into the tubes to explore.
“They seem to like the tubes,” Justin Williams told Science News. Williams, a biomedical engineer, worked on the experiment along with others, including graduate students Minrui Yu and Yu Huang. Biomedical engineers use ideas from engineering to solve problems in medicine or biology. Williams said the neurons-in-tubes experiment may lead to a way to build networks that can be many different shapes: The tubes could be used to lead neurons to connect together and form particular shapes. “Neurons left to their own devices will kind of glom on to one another or connect randomly to other cells.”