This Artificial Neuron Could One Day Be Used to Treat Chronic Conditions Like Alzheimer's

Scientists have built an artificial neuron that is smaller than a fingertip and requires no more than 140 nanoWatts of power—which they say could one day have major ramifications in a whole host of chronic diseases, including Alzheimer's and heart failure.

Writing in Nature Communications, researchers describe the process that led them to develop the neuron-on-a-chip, an achievement they describe as "paradigm-changing." The hope is that these mini-devices could be used to cure conditions caused by damaged neurons, such as heart failure.

Heart failure can be caused by mangled neurons failing to respond to nervous system feedback and, thus, sending the wrong signals to the heart.

Artificial Neuron
One of the artificial neurons developed following a series of scientific breakthroughs. The team behind the discovery hope it could one day be used to manage conditions like Alzheimer's. University of Bath

The chips were created to simulate real-life neurons, or nerve cells. These are the cells that receive information from the outside world (sensory neurons) and send that information around the rest of the body (association neurons), essentially telling the muscles and organs what to do (motor neurons). There are approximately 100 billion of these neurons in the human body.

"Our approach combines several breakthroughs, which open new horizons to neuromorphic engineering from programming analog computers to soft bioimplants," explained the study's authors.

The basis for the artificial versions was a set of equations that describe the way neurons talk to each other and respond to electrical stimuli. The researchers then built silicon chips that mimicked the processes of two types of neurons—hippocampal and respiratory—in rats, proving they produced similar responses when provoked by stimuli.

"Until now neurons have been like black boxes, but we have managed to open the black box and peer inside," Alain Nogaret, a professor in the department of physics at the University of Bath in the U.K and lead author of the paper, said in a statement, calling the work "paradigm-changing."

Nogaret and other researchers have also emphasized the chip's efficient use of energy. The artificial neuron requires a relatively tiny 140 nanoWatts of power—an amount approximately a billion times smaller than that required to power a microprocessor, devices that have formed the basis of many other attempts to create synthetic neurons.

"Our approach combines several breakthroughs. We can very accurately estimate the precise parameters that control any neurons behavior with high certainty," said Nogaret.

"We have created physical models of the hardware and demonstrated its ability to successfully mimic the behavior of real living neurons. Our third breakthrough is the versatility of our model, which allows for the inclusion of different types and functions of a range of complex mammalian neurons."

Nogaret describes the process of estimating the parameters as being like the proverb of the butterfly's wing.

"Neuron circuits are highly nonlinear and their parameters are nigh impossible to tune by hand," he told Newsweek.

"An analogue to what we have done can be pictured with the proverbial story of the wing of the butterfly that creates a hurricane elsewhere. What we have done is the equivalent of inferring the motion of the butterfly wing from the observation of the hurricane."

Nogaret said they are now working on smart pacemakers that will use the artificial neurons to react in real-time to pressures put on the heart, in addition to stimulating the heart into action.

"Our focus currently is on heart failure as we are confident this technology will deliver significant improvements in the life of heart failure patients," Nogaret told Newsweek.

"Beyond heart failure any neurodegenerative disease or disease of ion channels would naturally benefit from artificial neurons. Seizures, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease are diseases that come to mind and where there is a need for novel solutions in the medical community."

In 2015, a team of researchers based at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden announced they had built what they said was the world's first artificial neuron. The only problem? Measuring the size of a fingertip, it was too big for the human brain, Science Alert reported at the time.

The article has been updated to include comments from Professor Alain Nogaret.