Chips get nervy

European research has successfully connected mammalian neurons with silicon chips, which could one day lead to sophisticated wearer-controlled prostheses. As well as the potential to overcome neurological disorders, it could allow the creation of organic computers that use living neurons as their CPU.

The NACHIP project, funded under the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies initiative of the IST programme, is the first step in combining silicon circuits with a mammal’s nervous system.

In the near term, the new technology could enable advanced drug screening systems for the pharmaceutical industry.

“Pharmaceutical companies could use the chip to test the effect of drugs on neurons, to quickly discover promising avenues of research,” said Professor Stefano Vassanelli, a molecular biologist with the University of Padua in Italy, and one of the partners in the NACHIP project.

With the help of German microchip company Infineon, NACHIP placed 16,384 transistors and hundreds of capacitors on a 1mm2 chip. The group had to find appropriate materials and refine the topology of the chip to make the connection with neurons possible.

NACHIP uses proteins found in the brain to essentially glue the neurons to the chip. The proteins also provided the link between ionic channels of the neurons and semiconductor material in a way that neural electrical signals could be passed to the silicon chip.

Once there, that signal can be recorded using the chip’s transistors. The neurons can also be stimulated through the capacitors, which enables the two-way communications.

The project tested the device by stimulating the neurons and recording which ones fired using standard neuroscience techniques while tracking the signals coming from the chip.

The next proposed project for the team is investigating how to communicate with the neurons using genes. This could pave the way for a genetically powered hard disk.

“Genes are where memory come from, and without them you have no memory or computation. We want to explore a way to use genes to control the neuro-chip,” said Vassanelli.