Functioning artificial neuron created in Sweden
Assuming you have a healthy adult brain, the latest estimates state you have around 86 billion neurons in there. These cells process and transmit information to each other, and can be connected to up to 10,000 other neurons.
As you might imagine from something so tiny and inter-connected, changing their behaviour isn’t an exact science. To date, treating neurological disorders has been through electric stimulation or medications designed to adjust the chemical balance.
New research from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden could change all that. Scientists have created the very first synthetic neuron, containing no living parts at all, but capable of communicating with real cells. Currently the size of a fingertip, if the neurons can be suitably miniaturised, they could potentially help those with brain damage caused by disease or trauma.
“We foresee that in the future, by adding the concept of wireless communication, the biosensor could be placed in one part of the body, and trigger the release of neurotransmitters at distant locations,” said Agneta Richer-Dahlfors, professor of cellular microbiology at the Swedish medical nanoscience centre, in a statement.
“Using such auto-regulated sensing and delivery, or possibly a remote control, new and exciting opportunities for future research and treatment of neurological disorders can be envisaged.”
So how does it work? Real neurons are specialised cells that release chemical signals across synapses, or intercellular gaps. The chemicals are converted into an electrical signal which passes along the spindly axon in the neuron. Upon reaching the other end, the signal is converted back into a chemical signal to be sent on.
The researchers constructed the synthetic neuron from conductive bioelectronic polymers to simulate the real thing. Connecting one end to a Petri dish, the neuron was able to detect a change of chemicals and translate this into an electrical signal. This resulted in the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in a second dish.
While use in the brain may be some way off, there could be other practical applications here – including prosthetics, where surgeons could potentially use neurons between tissue and the limb, giving the patient greater control of movement.
You can see the researchers explaining the synthetic neuron in the video below.