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5 December 2013 11:26 am ,
Vol. 342 ,
Thousands of scientists in the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) are about to lose their jobs as a result of the...
Dyslexia, a learning disability that hinders reading, hasn't been associated with deficits in vision, hearing, or...
Exotic, elusive, and dangerous, snakes have fascinated humankind for millennia. They can be hard to find, yet their...
Researchers have sequenced and analyzed the first two snake genomes, which represent two evolutionary extremes. The...
Snake venoms are remarkably complex mixtures that can stun or kill prey within minutes. But more and more researchers...
At age 30, Dutch biologist Freek Vonk has built up a respectable career as a snake scientist. But in his home country,...
Since arriving on the island of Guam in the 1940s, the brown tree snake ( Boiga irregularis ) has extirpated native...
An animal rights group known as the Nonhuman Rights Project filed lawsuits in three New York courts this week in an...
- 5 December 2013 11:26 am , Vol. 342 , #6163
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Frankenstein Can Wait
28 October 1997 8:00 pm
Scientists have built the first silicon chip equipped with living nerve cells. The "neurochip," a silicon rectangle about 4 centimeters wide immersed in a petri dish, may be the forerunner of bionic eyes or other medical devices engineered from combinations of silicon and living neurons. For now, neurobiologists hope to use the device, described this week at the meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans, for a humbler purpose: understanding how nerve cells grow and communicate with each other.
Biologists have studied individual neurons for years, and they can listen in on the chatter of neurons in nerves and brains. But trying to learn how neurons communicate from such measurements was like trying to learn basic electronics by studying the workings of a computer. Any electronic engineer learns by building small circuits first, so neuroscientists have long wanted to build simple circuits of neurons. But when they tried to link living nerve cells, they usually ended up injuring or killing them.
Jerome Pine, a neurophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, along with a team of electrical engineers and biologists, created a microscopic silicon landscape that confined individual neurons, while allowing them to establish connections: a set of 16 tiny wells, each about 1/40 of a millimeter in diameter, with short tunnels leading to the surface. The researchers placed an embryonic rat brain cell in each well; as the cells grew, they sent out long dendrite arms through the tunnels toward neighboring wells. Wires in the underlying silicon monitored the electrical behavior of the neurons.
Eventually the dendrites made contact with those of neighboring cells and established normal electrical activity. "Now," Pine says, "the biggest challenge is maintaining a healthy network." So far the researchers have only been able to keep the cells alive for two weeks at a time. Once they can keep the circuit going for long enough, perhaps a month, they hope to study, for example, how small sets of neurons "learn" after being stimulated repeatedly.
"The work will certainly be important for future medical applications," says Peter Fromherz, a neurophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich, Germany, who is also trying to marry neurons and silicon. "The retina, with its planar structure, may be the best system" to try to imitate with flat neurochips, he says. But such applications are a ways off. Says Pine, "You shouldn't expect anything in our lifetime."