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WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Neurons play a crucial role in helping ensure our bodies run smoothly, but when they’re damaged, or degrade there can be dire consequences, from dementia to quadriplegia, this breakthrough might let us restore, or even enhance, neurological functions.

 

Researchers have built the world’s first artificial neuron that’s capable of mimicking the function of an organic brain cell – including the ability to translate chemical signals into electrical impulses, and communicate with other human cells.

These artificial neurons are the size of a fingertip and contain no ‘living’ parts and the team is working on shrinking them down to the nanoscale so they can be implanted into humans. This could allow us to effectively replace damaged nerve cells and develop new treatments for neurological disorders, such as spinal cord injuries and Parkinson’s disease.

 

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“Our artificial neuron is made of conductive polymers and it functions like a human neuron,” said lead researcher Agneta Richter-Dahlfors from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

Until now, scientists have only been able to stimulate brain cells using electrical impulses, which is how they transmit information within the cells. But in our bodies they’re stimulated by chemical signals, and this is how they communicate with other neurons.

By connecting enzyme-based biosensors to organic electronic ion pumps, Richter-Dahlfors and her team have now managed to create an artificial neuron that can mimic this function, and they’ve shown that it can communicate chemically with organic brain cells even over large distances.

 

 

“The sensing component of the artificial neuron senses a change in chemical signals in one dish, and translates this into an electrical signal,” said Richter-Dahlfors, “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.”

This means that artificial neurons could theoretically be integrated into complex biological systems, such as our bodies, and could allow scientists to replace or bypass damaged nerve cells, potentially reversing paralysis. So imagine being able to use the device to restore function to paralysed patients, or heal brain damage.

 

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“Next, we would like to miniaturise this device to enable implantation into the human body,” said 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,” she added.

The results of lab trials have been published in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics.

While the potential for treating neurological disorders using this new discovery is exciting, the artificial neurons could one day also help us to supplement our mental abilities and add extra memory storage or offer faster processing – and that opens up some pretty awesome possibilities.

About author

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin, described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers” and a “Young Kurzweil,” is the founder and CEO of the World Futures Forum and the 311 Institute, a global Futures and Deep Futures consultancy working between the dates of 2020 to 2070, and is an award winning futurist, and author of “Codex of the Future” series. Regularly featured in the global media, including AP, BBC, CNBC, Discovery, RT, and Viacom, Matthew’s ability to identify, track, and explain the impacts of hundreds of revolutionary emerging technologies on global culture, industry and society, is unparalleled. Recognised for the past six years as one of the world’s foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew is an international speaker who helps governments, investors, multi-nationals and regulators around the world envision, build and lead an inclusive, sustainable future. A rare talent Matthew’s recent work includes mentoring Lunar XPrize teams, re-envisioning global education and training with the G20, and helping the world’s largest organisations envision and ideate the future of their products and services, industries, and countries. Matthew's clients include three Prime Ministers and several governments, including the G7, Accenture, Bain & Co, BCG, Credit Suisse, Dell EMC, Dentons, Deloitte, E&Y, GEMS, Huawei, JPMorgan Chase, KPMG, Lego, McKinsey, PWC, Qualcomm, SAP, Samsung, Sopra Steria, T-Mobile, and many more.

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