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Chip boffins hone silicon-brain interface

First slugs. Then humans

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IEDM The International Electron Device Meeting (IEDM) opened today in San Francisco, the annual IEEE-sponsored gathering of the world's top 1,500 semiconductor engineers. From the opening session, it was clear there's a lot going on in their fertile minds - including plans to get devices inside your mind. Literally.

The first talk in this morning's opening Plenary Session was "Electronic and Ionic Devices: Semiconductor Chips with Brain Tissue." Yes, you read that correctly: brain tissue. For half an hour, Peter Fromherz of Munich's Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry held a tough crowd's close attention as he described his work on silicon-to-neuron interfaces.

According to Fromherz, although the research he and his team are undertaking to create interfaces between ionic devices such as nerve cells and electronic devices such as chips is still in its early stages, its history dates back to 1783, when Luigi Galvani (as many of us were taught back in high school) first made a frog's amputated leg twitch by touching it with a spark.

Things have gotten quite a bit more sophisticated in the intervening 225 years - including, for example, in-brain electrical stimulation of Parkinson's disease patients - but a safe, stable, reliable, and rugged brain/chip interface remains elusive.

The brain is an interconnected morass of neurons. Any comprehensive electronic interface with it would need not only to have physical contact with, as Fromherz said, "hundreds of thousands or millions of contact sites." But those sites would have to be stable both in placement and biochemical interaction. You don't want them firing up the wrong neurons, poking them destructively, or chemically interacting with them in nasty ways, do you?

Fromherz cited three main directions for hybrid-neuroelectronics research: neurosensorics, neuroprosthetics, and neurocomputing. The first investigates devices that could study the brain, the second focuses on creating devices that could replace or supplement organic functions such as sight and hearing, and the third explores using brain tissue to inform computing design and function.

As you might imagine, that third area - neurocomputing - is the furthest away, seeing as how tissue/chip interface development is still in its infancy. You can forget about organic computers floating in Mason jars for the time being.

Fromherz went on to describe in detail his team's early work on the cell/chip interface. Interestingly, the neurons that they used for testing weren't from humans - which, for some reason, The Reg finds a wee bit of a relief - but from slugs. It seems that slug neurons are quite large and thus easier to work with than mammalian neurons.

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Next page: Silicon-Slug Talk

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