In Italy, experts from various research fields are studying the exchange of information between biology and man-made electronic devices. Early reports suggest the may have found a way to interface electronics with the human nervous system.
Just a few years ago, the idea of a direct neural interface was best left to special effects designers in movies. The concept drives the plot of innumerable films about robots conquering humanity, many of which create hybrid robots with biological hardware and a human-like interface much like our perceived consciousness. One of the major challenges in cognitive neuroscience is designing a functional bio-hybrid system that allows biology and electronic devices to communicate.
Specialists from around the world gathered at an interdisciplinary meeting in Italy. Expert participants hailed from the fields of physics, chemistry, biochemistry, engineering, physiology and molecular biology.
Their mission was to analyze the biocompatibility of the substrate used for the connection of biological and artificial components, as well as to explore the functionality of the adherent cells. This would give the basis for a new generation of living biohybrid systems.
Using Raman spectroscopy, the multidisciplinary research team used the interaction of light and matter to study the properties of materials at the molecular level.
Memristor to Link Biology With Electronics
After analyzing the substrate biocompatibility and studying the functionality of adherent cells, scientists then hypothesized ways to connect with the electronic component. To do that, the team lead by Silvia Caponi, a physicist at the Italian National Research Council in Rome, used a memristor.
The memristor is regarded as an electronic equivalent to a synapse. Synapses are the wires that connect neurons with one another. The more the synapse is used, the stronger its connection becomes.
Like synapses, memristors remember previous impulses and learn from them. memristors are fed electrical impulses that come from circuits to which they are connected. The hope is that one day a memristor could be linked to the nervous system. The amount of current that a memristor allows to pass depends on its exposure to the current and the strength of said current.
By combining memristors within the electrical circuits, it is possible to create connections that work similarly to natural synapses. Organic polymer layers, such as the so-called PANI, a semiconductor polymer, also possess memristive properties, allowing them to work directly with biological materials within a biohybrid system.
Looking Forward to a Direct Neural Interface
Now, having found the right substrate, adherent cells, memristor, and organic polymers, experts are ready to build on this experiment.
“We want to define the materials and their functionalization procedures,” said Caponi, “to find the best configuration for the neuron-memristor interface to deliver a full working hybrid bio-memristive system.”
Soon, this proof of concept could be used to link machines with the nervous system. In theory, developers could create fully functioning bionic limbs, organs, and even machines that support the immune system.