Swedish Scientists Build Artificial Neurons Able to Communicate With Organic Neurons
Scientists at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have built a fully functional neuron by using organic bioelectronics. This artificial neuron contain 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.
Neurons communicate with chemical signals called neurotransmitters. Incoming chemical signals are converted to electrical signals that travel along the neuron and eventually converted back to chemical signals and sent to other neurons. To date, the main medical technique used for neuronal stimulation is based on electrical stimulation. However, the new bioelectronic device developed by the Karolinska researchers is capable of receiving chemical signals, which it can then relay to organic neurons.
The Fundamental Chemical-to-Electrical-to-Chemical Signal Transduction Function of Organic Neurons is Achieved by the Artificial Neuron
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.”
Richter-Dahlfors and her team, in collaboration with collegues at Linköping University, have published the results of their research in an article titled “An organic electronic biomimetic neuron enables auto-regulated neuromodulation” on Biosensors and Bioelectronics.
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. According to the research paper, 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.
The intended applications of the research include complementing or replacing traditional electrical stimulation with neuron-like chemical signals in treatments for neurologial disorders. The prototype organic electronic biomimetic neuron would have the capacity to precisely intervene with the underlying malfunctioning signalling pathway.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.
Currently the prototype device, shown in the video, is fingertip-sized. It’s interesting to speculate on the possibility that this or a similar devices could eventually be subject to extreme miniaturization much beyond the relatively sober plans envisaged by Richer-Dahlfors. Banks of cell-sized artificial neurons that work like organic neurons, and can communicate with organic neurons, could then be added to the brain as co-processors and memory storage devices, which would be an important step toward working brain implants.
Images from Shutterstok and Karolinska Institutet.