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Scientists Create Nerve Cells In The Lab

After the development of artificial nerve cells in the lab, robots with brain-like neurons are imminent

Robots with brain-like neurons are on the horizon after the creation of manmade nerve cells in the lab.

The breakthrough could also lead to a better understanding of Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases – opening the door to new treatments.

The synthetic cells mimic characteristics of the real thing. PHOTO BY THOR BALKHED/SWNS

The synthetic cells mimic characteristics of the real thing. They can stimulate natural nerves – making them a promising strategy for therapies of the future. Named c-OECNs (conductance-based organic electrochemical neurons), they closely resemble 15 of the 20 features of biological nerve cells. This means they function in a similar way – a major step forward in AI (artificial intelligence).

Lead author of the study Padinhare Cholakkal Harikesh makes the chemical transistors used in artificial neurons. PHOTO BY THOR BALKHED/SWNS

Principal investigator Professor Simone Fabiano, of Linkoping University, Sweden, said: “One of the key challenges in creating artificial neurons that effectively mimic real biological neurons is the ability to incorporate ion modulation.

“Traditional artificial neurons made of silicon can emulate many neural features but cannot communicate through ions.

“In contrast, c-OECNs use ions to demonstrate several key features of real biological neurons.”

Last year the same team demonstrated how an artificial organic neuron could be integrated into a living carnivorous plant to control the opening and closing of its maw. It met two of the 20 characteristics that differentiate it from a biological nerve cell. The latest study published in Nature Materials is a dramatic improvement.

The researchers previously developed organic electrochemical transistors based on n-type conducting polymers – materials that can conduct negative charges. This made it possible to build printable complementary organic electrochemical circuits.

Since then, the group has been working to optimize them so they can be printed in a press on a thin plastic foil. As a result, it is now possible to make thousands of transistors on a flexible substrate and use them to develop artificial nerve cells.

Artificial neurons developed at Linköping University. A new study revealed that ions, which are electrically charged atoms utilized to control a polymer’s flow and cause voltage spikes in the device, are similar to the electrical activity of nerve cells in living things. PHOTO BY THOR BALKHED/SWNS

Ions are electrically charged atoms used to control the flow through a polymer, leading to spikes in the device’s voltage – similar to what occurs in biological nerve cells.

The unique material also allows the current to be increased and decreased in an almost perfect bell-shaped curve that resembles the activation and inactivation of sodium ion channels found in biology. Prof Fabiano said: “Several other polymers show this behavior, but only rigid polymers are resilient to disorder, enabling stable device operation.”

In experiments, the c-OECN neurons were connected to the vagus nerve of mice where they stimulated cells – causing a 4.5 percent change in heart rate. It may pave the way for essential applications in various forms of medical treatment, said Prof Fabiano.

In general, organic semiconductors have the advantage of being biocompatible, soft, and malleable. The vagus nerve plays a key role, for example, in the body’s immune system and metabolism. The researchers now plan to reduce the energy consumption of the artificial neurons, which is still much higher than that of human nerve cells.

Lead author Dr. Padinhare Cholakkal Harikesh said: “There is much we still don’t fully understand about the human brain and nerve cells.

“In fact, we don’t know how the nerve cell makes use of many of these 15 demonstrated features.

“Mimicking the nerve cells can enable us to understand the brain better and build circuits capable of performing intelligent tasks. “We’ve got a long road ahead, but this study is a good start.”


Produced in association with SWNS Talker.

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