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Friday, 28 February 2020

Biological and artificial neurons communicated with each other over the Internet

For several decades, scientists have been trying to artificially recreate the functioning of the human brain through AI and artificial neural networks. In addition to this research, they are also trying to link brain functions to machines via brain-computer interfaces. But recently, an international team of researchers has taken a new step: communicating biological and artificial neurons over the Internet. This scientific achievement should allow the development of new interconnected neuroprosthetic and neuroelectronic technologies.

Research on novel nanoelectronics devices led by the University of Southampton has enabled brain neurons and artificial neurons to communicate with each other. This study has for the first time shown how three key emerging technologies can work together: brain-computer interfaces, artificial neural networks and advanced memory technologies (also known as memristors). The discovery opens the door to further significant developments in neural and artificial intelligence research.

Brain functions are made possible by circuits of spiking neurons, connected together by microscopic, but highly complex links called ‘synapses’. In this new study, published in the scientific journal Nature Scientific Reports, the scientists created a hybrid neural network where biological and artificial neurons in different parts of the world were able to communicate with each other over the internet through a hub of artificial synapses made using cutting-edge nanotechnology.

Bi-directional communication in real time between biological and artificial neurons

This is the first time the three components have come together in a unified network. During the study, researchers based at the University of Padova in Italy cultivated rat neurons in their laboratory, whilst partners from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich created artificial neurons on Silicon microchips. The virtual laboratory was brought together via an elaborate setup controlling nanoelectronic synapses developed at the University of Southampton. These synaptic devices are known as memristors.

Biological neurons and artificial neurons were able to communicate with each other through the Internet via memristors. Credits: University of Southampton

The Southampton based researchers captured spiking events being sent over the internet from the biological neurons in Italy and then distributed them to the memristive synapses. Responses were then sent onward to the artificial neurons in Zurich also in the form of spiking activity. The process simultaneously works in reverse too; from Zurich to Padova. Thus, artificial and biological neurons were able to communicate bidirectionally and in real time.

(a) Diagram of the various components of the communication circuit. ANpre and ANpost are the artificial neurons on silicon; MR1 and ME2 the memristors; the neurons of rats are cultured on the surface in TiO2. (b) Operational diagram of the communication circuit. Credits: Alexantrou Serb et al. 2020

Themis Prodromakis, Professor of Nanotechnology and Director of the Centre for Electronics Frontiers at the University of Southampton said “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. By creating a virtual lab we have been able to achieve this.”

Towards new connected neuroprosthetic and neuroelectronic technologies

The researchers now anticipate that their approach will ignite interest from 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 across the globe is a step towards the democratisation of these technologies, removing a significant barrier to collaboration.

Professor Prodromakis added “We are very excited with this new development. 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. On the other hand, it brings new prospects to neuroprosthetic technologies, paving the way towards research into replacing dysfunctional parts of the brain with AI chips.”


Memristive synapses connect brain and silicon spiking neurons

Alexantrou Serb, Andrea Corna, Richard George, Ali Khiat, Federico Rocchi, Marco Reato, Marta Maschietto, Christian Mayr, Giacomo Indiveri, Stefano Vassanelli, Themistoklis Prodromakis.

Scientific Reports, 2020;

DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-58831-9

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