It’s been over 200 years since science has seen the connection between biology and technology when Luigi Galvani first stimulated a frog’s leg to contract with an electrical pulse. However, we are still stuck in a nescient stage of electrically coupling nerve cells will man-made devices.
Peter Fromherz of the Membrane and Neurophysics Department at the Max Plank Institute is guiding his lab to figure out how computer chips can be used to support neurons functioning in a living system, and even help us learn more about how the brain works.
The techniques they are developing involve manually placing large snail nerve cells (100 microns, which is quite large as far as brain cells go) on top of a patterned electrode on a silicon wafer. The electrode is surrounded by a fence of pillars that act to constrain the cell body from movement while it grows branching axons and dendrites to connect up with neighboring cells. Currently, they are focusing on establishing a contact-free method of interfacing where the nerve cell never actually comes into direct contact with the electrode and silicon surface.
Fromherz cautiously approaches the expectations of neuron device research. The brain is connected in such an enormously complicated tangle of dendrites that it is still unclear exactly how far we will succeed by interfacing the nervous system with semiconductor technology.
Fromherz also rightly stresses that any comparison between the computational methods of today’s computers with that of a neuron network is completely misguided. Our brain’s neuron networks function insanely slower than your common desktop computer. Still, your thought processes are much more powerful than your PC’s internal chugging. The computational mechanisms in biological nervous systems are not understood in any complete way, and a significant advancement will need to occur before we will be able to truly harness in the power of interconnected neurons.