Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have created an artificial neuron made of organic bioelectronics. They convert chemical signals to electric potentials, which are then used to release a neurotransmitter that acts on nearby cells.
The new technique makes it possible to stimulate neurons based on specific chemical signals received from different parts of the body.
Currently, electric neurostimulators rely on electrical signals coming from the body, or some even work blindly simply being constantly activated and delivering therapy consistently at all times.
The device is quite bulky and is incomparable in size to natural neurons, but researchers plan to miniaturize it. Also, they envision wireless transmission to be built into the artificial neurons that will allow them to communicate across the body without having to be linked by physical wires.
"Our artificial neuron is made of conductive polymers and it functions like a human neuron", says lead investigator Agneta Richter-Dahlfors, professor of cellular microbiology.
"The sensing component of the artificial neuron senses a change in chemical signals in one dish, and translates this into an electrical signal. This electrical signal is next translated into the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in a second dish, whose effect on living human cells can be monitored."
In the future, transmission of chemical signals to stimulate neurons may help physicians to bypass damaged nerve cells and restore neural function.