The researchers were able to create artificial neurons for the first time that could be implanted in patients with paralysis, Alzheimer's disease or other nervous system problems, according to The Guardian. Artificial neurons could even be used to connect the brain to the computer.
Bionic neurons can receive electrical signals from healthy nerve cells and process them naturally, and then send new signals to other neurons. One of the first applications could be treating a form of heart failure that occurs when a neural circuitry at the base of the brain deteriorates due to age or disease and can no longer send the correct electrical signals for the heart to pump normal blood.
Rather than being implanted directly into the brain, artificial neurons are inserted into microchips wide by several millimeters. Chips are the basis of devices that are then mounted directly into the nervous system, for example by intercepting signals that travel between the brain and the leg muscles.
"Any area that is suffering from a degenerative disease, such as Alzheimer's, where neurons no longer send impulses due to age, disease, or injury, can be helped by an artificial neuron implant that does the job of naturally affected neurons," he says Alain Nogaret, the physicist who led the project at the University of Bath.
The discovery comes after the researchers observed that they can model live neurons in a computer program and recreate the way they send impulses into a silicone chip with an accuracy of over 94%. The program allows researchers to copy the entire variety of neurons that can be found in the human nervous system.
The researchers describe in the scientific journal Nature Communications how they used two types of neurons – part of them in the hippocampus, a brain region crucial for memory and learning, or neurons that play a role in subconscious control of breathing.
Scientists now say that they can build bionic neurons based on any of the nerve cells in the brain, spine, or farther spaces in the peripheral nervous system, such as sensation neurons in the skin.
Even with more efforts aimed at developing artificial neurons, it will take until they can help patients, but if they prove to be safe and effective, they could be used to solve a multitude of problems: memory loss or even eliminating paralysis and helping patients who suffered amputations by mounting robotic limbs with artificial neurons as "batteries".