February 20, 2004.
By JILL MAHONEY,
Globe and Mail.
Researchers have discovered a technique for communication between snail brain cells and a microchip, a breakthrough that may one day help restore sight to the visually impaired, turn back the clock on memory loss and allow better control of artificial limbs.
In the study, soon to be published in the international journal Physical Review Letters, the scientists also discovered that the brain cells showed signs of memory.
"This study is the first to provide the complete interfacing, or a complete link, between an electronic device and the mind or the brain," said Naweed Syed, a University of Calgary neurobiologist and co-author of the paper.
Dr. Syed said the implications of the research could be enormous and potentially lead to the development of microchips that would stimulate activity when implanted in the retinas of the visually impaired, in the brains of amputees and in the brains of people suffering memory loss. As well, he said, the findings could lead to "thinking" computers.
However, Dr. Syed cautioned that such advances are still hopes and dreams: "It's a long way off."
The innovative technique, discovered by Dr. Syed and German physicist Peter Fromherz, involves culturing snail brain cells — chosen for their relatively large size — on a silicon microchip.
The chip, which is connected to a computer, contains tiny receptors and transistors that pass information between the computer and the cells and, most importantly, back to the computer.
As well, the researchers stimulated an individual brain cell and observed it communicating through synaptic transmissions with another brain cell through normal chemical messengers. Through the chip, they picked up the activity of the second cell.
"The chip talks to the brain cell and the brain cell can talk back to the chip. ..... That was actually a remarkable achievement," Dr. Syed said.
As well, the study, which has been published on the Internet, notes that the cells remembered prior activity patterns — a key aspect of learning and memory development.
"It's what we call a use-dependent memory. It's like a working memory, like a RAM memory on a computer," he said.
The approach is an improvement on the current, limited practice of stimulating brain cells with electrodes and currents, which can damage them.
The moment the team's hypothesis was confirmed in a Munich lab a year ago was emotional.
"I mean we're all grown up, but we were crying. And you can imagine the Germans don't normally show their feelings very well, but I could see Peter Fromherz, he was just jumping up and down," Dr. Syed said.
Dr. Syed, who is a professor in the U of C's faculty of medicine, said he is applying the technique to human brain cells obtained from tumours in an effort to create networks of functioning cells. "It's a work in progress."
The implications of the team's findings will likely aid in future research, including obtaining a better understanding of brain function — exactly how and where cells communicate — by implanting a microchip in a human brain. The result of such information could lead to ways to repair brain damage caused by trauma or neurodegenerative ailments, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
As well, an implanted chip could gather vital information on how cells function during learning and memory processes, which could lead to the development of chips that would act as a memory centre — in the same way as a computer memory card — in the brains of those who have memory loss.
For amputees, the technique could harness the signals that the brain continues to send — often known as phantom pain — and relay them to a prosthesis with a remote transistor. The effect could be the synchronization of the natural and artificial limb, which would be controlled as if it were part of the person's body.
© 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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