A real neural network

Paul Raven @ 23-03-2011

And today’s award for Endearingly Punning Post Headline of the Day goes to my good buddy m1k3y, who has graced grinding.be with a piece titled “Scientists train mouse nerves to grow through series of tubes“. The source for it is this Science News post, which explains how some clever folk have managed to encourage mouse neurons to grow their way along microscopic tubes of semiconductor material, making a crude self-assembling network. But don’t panic: there’s been no firing up of cyber-rodent self-awareness. Yet.

When the team seeded areas outside the tubes with mouse nerve cells the cells went exploring, sending their threadlike projections into the tubes and even following the curves of helical tunnels, the researchers report in an upcoming ACS Nano.

“They seem to like the tubes,” says biomedical engineer Justin Williams, who led the research. The approach offers a way to create elaborate networks with precise geometries, says Williams. “Neurons left to their own devices will kind of glom on to one another or connect randomly to other cells, neither of which is a good model for how neurons work.”

At this stage, the researchers have established that nerve cells are game for exploring the tiny tubes, which seem to be biologically friendly, and that the cell extensions will follow the network to link up physically. But it isn’t clear if the nerves are talking to each other, sending signals the way they do in the body. Future work aims to get voltage sensors and other devices into the tubes so researchers can eavesdrop on the cells. The confining space of the little tunnels should be a good environment for listening in, perhaps allowing researchers to study how nerve cells respond to potential drugs or to compare the behavior of healthy neurons with malfunctioning ones such as those found in people with multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s.

No radical melding of meat and machine, then, but I suppose the coexistence of living cells and semiconductors has to be a step in that direction…