Sticky proteins for neuro-chip chat
EU-funded researchers have taken the firsts steps towards future technologies combining silicon circuits and the nervous systems of mammals. Applications could include advanced drug screening and, perhaps one day, implants to help combat neurological disorders.
"Pharmaceutical companies could use the chip to test the effect of drugs on neurons, to quickly discover promising avenues of research," says Professor Stefano Vassanelli, a molecular biologist with the University of Padua in Italy, and one of the partners in the Information Society Technologies (IST) NACHIP project.
Ending in December last year, the three-year project's core achievement combined semiconductor technology and biology in developing a working interface between the living tissue of individual animal neurons and the inorganic compounds of silicon chips, reports IST Results.
With the help of German microchip company Infineon, NACHIP placed 16 384 transistors and hundreds of capacitors on a chip just 1mm2. The group had to find appropriate materials and refine the chip to make the neuronal connection possible. They used special proteins found in the brain which act as a biological glue, a semiconductor and a signal recorder between the neurons and chip.
The project, funded by the EU's frontier science (Future and Emerging Technologies) initiative, 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 development of the interface and chip are crucial for this new technology, but some hurdles still remain for future research to tackle. "Right now, we need to refine the way we stimulate the neurons, to avoid damaging them," Vassanelli told IST Results. And there are plans to explore how to use genes to control the neuro-chip technology.
Multidisciplinary research such as this suits multi-skilled, multi-sited EU projects like NACHIP. And with the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Germany heading the project, it gained the experience of a world leader in the field. "Europe should be very proud of these resources. It gives us access to equipment and expertise that would be very hard to replicate elsewhere," Vassanelli concludes.
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