Linking neurons through the internet
Recently, research on nanoelectronic devices led by the University of Southampton enabled brain neurons and artificial neurons to communicate with each other. This is the first time where brain-computer interfaces, artificial neural networks, and memristors (a memory technology) have worked together.
Our brain functions due to circuits of spiking neurons that are connected by microscopic, complex links called synapses. In the University of Southampton study, scientists created a hybrid neural network where biological and artificial neurons in different parts of the world communicated with each other over the internet through artificial synapses. Research into artificial neuron transmission and synapses has been conducted in the past, but this is the first time they were used together in a unified network.
The study involved experts from numerous institutions. Researchers from the University of Padova in Italy cultivated rat neurons in their laboratory, and partners from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich created artificial neurons on silicon microchips. “One of the biggest challenges in conducting research of this kind and at this level has been integrating such distinct cutting edge technologies and specialist expertise that are not typically found under one roof," said Themis Prodromakis, Professor of Nanotechnology and Director of the Centre for Electronics Frontiers at the University of Southampton in a press release, "By creating a virtual lab we have been able to achieve this.”
Researchers in the virtual laboratory created a system to control nanoelectronic synapses, known as memristors. Researchers in Southampton captured spiking events that were sent from biological neurons in Italy over the internet, and then distributed them to the synapses. Responses were then sent onward to the artificial neurons in Zurich, which also saw spiking activity. This process can also simultaneously work in the opposite direction from Zurich to Padova.
In the future, this technology may enable further research in artificial neural communication. Researchers anticipate that their approach will ignite interest in a range of scientific disciplines and accelerate the pace of innovation and scientific advancement in the field of neural interfaces research. In particular, the ability to seamlessly connect disparate technologies through the internet is a step towards global collaboration.
On the future applications of this technology, Prodromakis said “On one side it sets the basis for a novel scenario that was never encountered during natural evolution, where biological and artificial neurons are linked together and communicate across global networks; laying the foundations for the Internet of Neuro-electronics.” The research also has applications in neuroprosthetic technologies, giving scientists insight as to how dysfunctional parts of the brain might be replaced with AI chips.