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Shreyas
Shreyas • Apr 30, 2011

Synapse Replicated Using Carbon Nanotubes: Breakthrough For Building Artificial Brain?

In any communication system, the information is not transmitted using a single channel. The system is said to be good if there exists relaying stations which help in faster distribution of the signal. And the world’s best transmission system is our human brain. The information is relayed in two forms: chemical and electrical. The nervous system has neurons which possess junctions called as synapse. The signal is passed from one neuron to another through this synapse. The word synapse literally means to clasp together and is derived from the Greek word “synaptein”.  So to make it easier, neurons are the cells which act as transmission channel and synapse is the relaying station for the electrical signals.

[​IMG]The researchers at USC Viterbi School of Engineering have amalgamated the knowledge from two fields of circuit design and nanotechnology to build an artificial synapse using carbon tubes. The group was headed by Professor Alice Parker and Professor Chongwu Zhou from the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering. The design is advancement in the quest to build prosthetic brains or parts of it. The carbon tubes which were used are used extensively in electric designs and are the outcome of the nanotechnology.  These are molecular structures and have a diameter size measuring less than million times than that of pencil point. This development answers the questions which were raised in past as to whether it is possible to build a circuit which would mimic the human brain. The hurdles which the designers faced were how can you build a system which would be just like the brain? For starters, the human brain has 100 billion neurons and to add to the complexity, each neuron has 10,000 synapses.

The field of prosthetics is seeing zany developments every day. Recently, Georgia Tech developed new scaffold design for neurons. This is shaped like a coiled conduit and helps the neurons limbs to get connected to artificial electrodes more easily.

Parker admits that the mere duplication of synapse will not speed up the process of building artificial brain in a big way. But this is a small step for a man. And who knows? It can be a big leap for mankind! The next project which the team undertakes is to test the brain plasticity of this artificial synapse. Brain plasticity is a term used to define the changes in the working of brain’s processes due to changes in the environment or due to one’s experiences. This is a recent discovery as earlier, people thought that the brain remained as it is in terms of behavioral development from infant stage and did not undergo any changes during one’s growth. So the next challenge before the team is to see how this device responds based on its past experiences!

The findings were made public through a paper published in the proceedings of the IEEE/NIH 2011 Life Science Systems and Applications Workshop in April 2011. National Science Foundation and the Women in Science and Engineering program at USC backed the team for its research. "The interdisciplinary approach is the only approach that will lead to a solution. We need more than one type of engineer working on this solution," says Jonathan Joshi, a USC Viterbi Ph.D. student who is a co-author of the paper.

News and Image Source: PhysOrg

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