Unlike my post earlier today (June 26, 2015) about BrainChip, this is not about neuromorphic engineering (artificial brain), although I imagine this new research from the Karolinska Institute (Institutet) will be of some interest to that community. This research was done in the interest of developing* therapeutic interventions for brain diseases. One aspect of this news item/press release I find particularly interesting is the insistence that “no living parts” were used to create the artificial neuron,
A June 24, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily describes what the artificial neuron can do,
Scientists have managed to build a fully functional neuron by using organic bioelectronics. This artificial neuron contain [sic] no ‘living’ parts, but is capable of mimicking the function of a human nerve cell and communicate in the same way as our own neurons do. [emphasis mine]
A June 24, 2015 Karolinska Institute press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes how neurons communicate in the brain, standard techniques for stimulating neuronal cells, and the scientists’ work on a technique to improve stimulation,
Neurons are isolated from each other and communicate with the help of chemical signals, commonly called neurotransmitters or signal substances. Inside a neuron, these chemical signals are converted to an electrical action potential, which travels along the axon of the neuron until it reaches the end. Here at the synapse, the electrical signal is converted to the release of chemical signals, which via diffusion can relay the signal to the next nerve cell.
To date, the primary technique for neuronal stimulation in human cells is based on electrical stimulation. However, scientists at the Swedish Medical Nanoscience Centre (SMNC) at Karolinska Institutet in collaboration with collegues at Linköping University, have now created an organic bioelectronic device that is capable of receiving chemical signals, which it can then relay to human cells.
“Our artificial neuron is made of conductive polymers and it functions like a human neuron,” says lead investigator Agneta Richter-Dahlfors, professor of cellular microbiology. “The sensing component of the artificial neuron senses a change in chemical signals in one dish, and translates this into an electrical signal. This electrical signal is next translated into the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in a second dish, whose effect on living human cells can be monitored.”
The research team hope that their innovation, presented in the journal Biosensors & Bioelectronics, will improve treatments for neurologial disorders which currently rely on traditional electrical stimulation. The new technique makes it possible to stimulate neurons based on specific chemical signals received from different parts of the body. In the future, this may help physicians to bypass damaged nerve cells and restore neural function.
“Next, we would like to miniaturize this device to enable implantation into the human body,” says Agneta Richer-Dahlfors. “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 release of neurotransmitters at distant locations. 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.”
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
An organic electronic biomimetic neuron enables auto-regulated neuromodulation by Daniel T. Simon, Karin C. Larsson, David Nilsson, Gustav Burström, b, Dagmar Galter, Magnus Berggren, and Agneta Richter-Dahlfors. Biosensors and Bioelectronics Volume 71, 15 September 2015, Pages 359–364 doi:10.1016/j.bios.2015.04.058
This paper is behind a paywall.
As to anyone (other than myself) who may be curious about exactly what they used (other than “living parts”) to create an artificial neuron, there’s the paper’s abstract,
Current therapies for neurological disorders are based on traditional medication and electric stimulation. Here, we present an organic electronic biomimetic neuron, with the capacity to precisely intervene with the underlying malfunctioning signalling pathway using endogenous substances. The fundamental function of neurons, defined as chemical-to-electrical-to-chemical signal transduction, is achieved by connecting enzyme-based amperometric biosensors and organic electronic ion pumps. Selective biosensors transduce chemical signals into an electric current, which regulates electrophoretic delivery of chemical substances without necessitating liquid flow. Biosensors detected neurotransmitters in physiologically relevant ranges of 5–80 µM, showing linear response above 20 µm with approx. 0.1 nA/µM slope. When exceeding defined threshold concentrations, biosensor output signals, connected via custom hardware/software, activated local or distant neurotransmitter delivery from the organic electronic ion pump. Changes of 20 µM glutamate or acetylcholine triggered diffusive delivery of acetylcholine, which activated cells via receptor-mediated signalling. This was observed in real-time by single-cell ratiometric Ca2+ imaging. The results demonstrate the potential of the organic electronic biomimetic neuron in therapies involving long-range neuronal signalling by mimicking the function of projection neurons. Alternatively, conversion of glutamate-induced descending neuromuscular signals into acetylcholine-mediated muscular activation signals may be obtained, applicable for bridging injured sites and active prosthetics.
While it’s true neither are “living parts,” I believe both enzymes and organic electronic ion pumps can be found in biological organisms. The insistence on ‘nonliving’ in the press release suggests that scientists in Europe, if nowhere else, are still quite concerned about any hint that they are working on genetically modified organisms (GMO). It’s ironic when you consider that people blithely use enzyme-based cleaning and beauty products but one can appreciate the* scientists’ caution.
* ‘develop’ changed to ‘developing’ and ‘the’ added on July 3, 2015.