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Science Technology

Neuron Lithography Technique 137

An Anonymous Coward writes: "EE Times has an article about a new technique to build custom-designed networks from biological neurons using chip lithography and polymers to steer the growth of the neurons . Some of the first computers were described as "electronic brains" to the unwashed masses - will researchers have to describe these as "biological computers"?"
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Neuron Lithography Technique

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  • People call me a Chiphead now. With this, I'm really fscked.

  • and in the never-ending quest for an artificially created brain, scientists are now making circuits out of brain cells! woohoo!
  • My CPU is a neural net processor- a learning computer.
  • by Glowing Fish ( 155236 ) on Sunday August 26, 2001 @04:13AM (#2217713) Homepage

    While this is an interesting development, and I can't begin to guess what is the future possibilities of it, artificially causing neurons to grow rules out of one of their main strengths.

    Neurons get to make their own decision on how to grow, taking into account factors such as present of growth inducing hormones, and how much a connection a neuron makes is used. But still, to a great extant, neurons get to make their own decisions about how much and in what direction they get to grow.

    If you are directing neurons into what direction they are growing totally, then what you have is a really squishy computer circuit.

    • While this is an interesting development, and I can't begin to guess what is the future possibilities of it

      There have been two potential applications I've seen mentioned.

      • Biosensors. This doesn't have much to do with neurons per se, but with having access to very good chemical sensors that can be interfaced to other equipment. Neurons fit these requirements, at least for a limited range of chemicals.
      • Human-Machine interfaces, and specifically, interfaces for prosthetics. The problems with the neurochips that you point out could work in their favor in this area: you could have (relatively) controlled, deterministic behavior, but in a form that is far easier to "plug in" to the nervous system than silicon. Naturally, they would also be excellent for interfacing instruments to nervous systems for research purposes.
    • by dragons_flight ( 515217 ) on Sunday August 26, 2001 @05:34AM (#2217803) Homepage
      Neurons get to make their own decision on how to grow, taking into account factors such as present of growth inducing hormones, and how much a connection a neuron makes is used. But still, to a great extant, neurons get to make their own decisions about how much and in what direction they get to grow.

      It's not that simple. Basic nueroscience (of the poke and see what happens variety) recognizes that the brain is composed of many massively interconnected functional groups. In everyone the centers for speech, math, motor skills, etc. are roughly located in the same places. (Yes nature can compensate for damage in some cases, but retraining parts to do other work is slower and often less effective than the original)

      People and animals are genetically coded to design brains in certain ways. Merely having lots of nuerons doesn't guarantee intelligence or functionality. A lot of it has to do with where inputs come in and where the outputs go out and how the groups are connected along the way. Also there are different types of nuerons with different nuerotransmitters and degrees of interconnectedness.

      That said, yes the nuerons to some degree govern themselves. An architechture is built up and then nuerons respond in complicated and individual ways to some, as yet poorly understood, system for learning and development. If the brain really is all there is to intelligence than memory and learning have to be a product of something the nuerons are doing. Unless there is some uber mechanism directing all the nuerons, then learning has to be a natural result of what nuerons. Crudely put this might be divided into two categories (as we understand it today):

      1. Nuerons like to fire in the same patterns they've seen before.
      2. Nuerons like to make new connections.
      Thoughts, especially memories, aren't random, they are similar to thoughts that have occured before. Roughly speaking it appears that the brain likes doing things it has done before, and thus learning. One way this is accomplished is by strengthening connections between nerves that have fired together in the past and weakening ones that don't often fire together.

      The second thing is that nerves do like to grow. Not so much that it makes the brain random or chaotic, but enough to allow new patterns to be formed and improve on existing ones (for instance shortening the number of nuerons a common path goes through).

      No one really understands how it all interacts, or how the features of nuerons relate to our preferences for certain outcomes over others (e.g. what in the brains causes pleasures to be reinforced and painful experiences to be avoided). This is however a good first step at being able to study nueronal circuitry in a highly controlled way.

      Besides if you really expect functional "squishy" computers than something has to provide the initial framework that genetics and evolution has arranged in the animal kingdom. Build some nueron groups in meaningful ways, provide some mechanism for learning in an input/output environment (perhaps similar to how people try to train nueral computer networks), and then remove the restrictions on growth and connectedness and let the structures optimize and develop themselves.
      • This is fascinating...
        It makes me wonder what would happen if a similar connection-reinforcement algorithm were applied to the Internet.

        You could lay ground wires, use encrypted radio relay(HAM, anyone?), or satellite bouncing, all dependant on which would be the most cost-effective for the connection.

        It wouldn't even have to be prohibitively expensive. All you need is the initial traffic tracing data, and you can start encouraging various ISPs to have direct links to each other, whether it be through a PRI or whatever. After the Internet speeds up noticably, it may even become the "in" thing to advertise that, for publicity. (We help make the Internet work!") (Yes, I know Cisco has a similar slogan.)

        I can already give a good example where this would be useful: Packets between me and the local college currently travel via Chicago, and sometimes even California. Clearly, there is room for optimizations.

        And people say the Internet is a living, breathing thing now.
    • IAANS (I am a neuroscientist.)

      I think the best immediate application for this kind of technology is not in constructign useful biological circuits, but in doing basic research on the properties of the nerve cells themselves. Traditionally, most of our knowledge about how nerve cells operate has come from studies of single cells in isolation, and in vitro recording. Neither of these techniques give very much information about the mechanisms which govern interaction between neurons, especially in the ways that their growth and behavior is influenced by neighboring cells. A technique which allows us to control the growth of a nerve culture would be a great tool for studying those interactions, becaue you would be able to more tightly control the interactions present (as opposed to blindly jamming electrodes into brains and trying to infer circuits and connections from correlations in firing patterns, which is more or less the standard technique.)

      Koch in Biophysics of Computation showed that given what we know about neurons, they can theoretically implement equivalents of addition, multiplication, feedback, and many other computations, all within a single cell! The range of possibilities is enourmous, and requires a controlled environment to study the different tyeps of interactions. This could be a very important tool for research.

      • s/in vitro/in vivo/ above. (That is, electrodes in living animals.) There has been some work on trying to study networks in vitro as well (i.e., in an artificial cell culture grown on an electrode array,) but it's quite difficult--good electrodes are hard to make small enough, and even on the best electrode arrays you have to rely on luck to provide you with cells that wind up close enough to the electrodes to provide a good signal, and you wtill have very little idea about how the cells are connected. Another problem is the neurons will tend to move around a bit, so it's hard to track changes over time in such a culture. These problems could also be helped by this technique, by controlling the growth of interconnections and keeping the cells happy in one place.
      • Koch in Biophysics of Computation

        Thanks for the link. I've had some interest lately in the inner workings of neurons and that looks like an excellent book on the subject. Do you have any other book recommendations for people with interest in this subject?

        I also saw an interesting post in the Amazon reviews of this book. A researcher(?) posted that the book doesn't go into his apparently favorite theory (which might be recent) that neuron communication is actually multichannel, rather than the standard binary/linear pulse that is normally assumed. Do you have any references for research about that theory?

        Thanks in advance.

  • Can you imagine how it would be like to write software for a biological computer?
  • Anyone else notice the TI DSP sponsoring and advert?

    I bet they're just itching to make a neural net do FLOPs. :-)

  • New trend? (Score:3, Informative)

    by gad_zuki! ( 70830 ) on Sunday August 26, 2001 @05:26AM (#2217794)
    With this recent salon piece [salon.com] on how starfish parts could be used in computing and the neural net made out of neurons I think this could be a very interesting trend.

    The site is already slashdotted, man its 4am here, but if nature has already done a good job in design why not borrow it for other purposes. Its like Junkyard Wars but on a very small and living scale.

    A nice bonus with using cellurar material is there probably wont be ethical complaints i.e. who identifies with neurons?
    • who identifies with neurons?

      Not me, neurons tend to zap those they get close to. They and they make dwarves look huuuuge.

      Yup, neurons ain't done nutin' fer me.

  • A lot of people don't realise how good this sort of thing is.This sort of tech is just a start, but if progresses, is a great boon to mankind.
    The process of growing neurons in a circuit and allow interfacing of different types of neurons and electrical components is, I believe, fundamental to biochip technology.
    As a student of Prosthetics/Orthotics and Biomedical Engineering, this is exactly the sort of progress needed for greater synthesis of humans and their environment.

    The body is in many ways just a collection of tools, and the mind has adapted to use these tools. But when one of the tools is lost, there is great trouble in dealing with the loss(on a grief scale = to loss of a husband/wife).
    Children can adapt easier as they are still learning to use their tools. This is why myoelectric prostheses work quite well with children(myo prothetics are very instinctual). This sort of technology can allow greater integration of prosthetic limbs/organs as limbs can be designed to deal directly with the human 'meatware'.

    Don't even get me started on control of extenal devices like vehicles, surgical tools, or augmentation of mental systems, otherwise I'll be ranting for ever.

    I am very excited, must remember to breath :)

  • People, this is good. I may be biased toward that matter, but I'm watching closely this kind of development. As well as, I imagine, about every other person with a disability caused by nerve damage or destruction (total deafness in one ear in my case) (yeah, so I don't need to encode my MP3s in stereo).

    My bio courses are far behind me, but aren't nerves the 'tail' of neurons?
  • I can't remeber the source otherwise I would cite it, but does anyone remember the experiment where researchers just grew foetal neurons on/in a slab of hole riddled silicon, and then promptly slid it into the spine of a paraplegic patient.

    Apparently 60% return of function with physio. Considered one of the major stepping stones in biochips.

  • I can just see it.. "Hi, my name's Beowulf, and it's very nice to meet you. I'm a beowulf cluster.."

  • Wow. This gives whole new meaning to the term "go grow a brain." I can just imagine hearing a complaint in the future. "Yeah - my neutrient bath failed and my computer died... guess I'll have to start growing a new one." What's even better is that rat embryos are the source of it all! Who knew rats could be so smart? Would it go faster if I put some cheese in front of it? When it starts acting up I can threaten it with a mouse trap. Maybe it would freeze every time my cat walked by. And when you get a virus - it could mean a biological virus. I'm sure that transporting this stuff would be difficult after it is grown - so more than likely you would have to grow it on location. Hauling your box to your next LAN party would be a major pain in the ass!

    It seems to me this is one step closer to understanding how our brains generate thoughts and actions. In the future this type of technology could be used to extend the capabilites of our own bodies through the insertion of a tiny titanium chip. Maybe it could control nerves - making it possible to filter what signles are sent to the brain. You could insert them into a bunch of soldiers and make them impervious to pain and have the body generate adrenaline on demand. That would be rad.
    • So would your computer getting depressed and taking its own, errr, functionality.

      I'm sure the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has something to say about this...

  • by meggito ( 516763 )
    This seems to be another step into an inherently bad direction. Are we ready for computers that grow and think on their own. We're playing god to atheist beings.
  • by favalora ( 195222 ) <.favalora. .at. .actuality-systems.com.> on Sunday August 26, 2001 @10:04AM (#2218039) Homepage

    The EE Times article mentioned that a lot of the work is coming from Bruce Wheeler's research group. This is the home page:

    http://soma.npa.uiuc.edu/labs/wheeler/home.html [uiuc.edu]

    And click on "featured work."

    Also, if you're an electrical engineer you might be interested in "neuromorphic engineering," in which circuitry is designed with biological inspiration. A few places to check out are:

    Caltech Center for Neuromorphic Systems Engineering [caltech.edu]

    Telluride Workshop on Neuromorphic Engineering [unizh.ch]

    And this Introduction to Computational Neuroscience [caltech.edu]

    - Gregg Favalora -

  • well...its fantastic that they are attempting to use neurons to bring into existence a new form of computing.
    The technique they're using to bring about these results, however, was pioneered by the brothers Vacanti, as you can see in a recent story covered by discover magazine.
    1. http://www.discover.com/july_01/featbros.html

    Although I retain some measure of hope that this endeavour will meet success, it is of note that the scientists originally turned to stem cell research primarily because more conventional cells die quickly.
    Thus, i am not exactly encouraged by the fact that they need to be propped up by artificial means to survive for sufficiently long periods of time.
  • by Alik ( 81811 ) on Sunday August 26, 2001 @10:22AM (#2218081)
    Out of curiousity, any of the readers have a reference to the actual journal article? (I'm assuming they published this *somewhere* and didn't just send out a press release.) I'm aware of previous results with neurons and polylysine, so I'd like to take a look and see precisely what the innovation is here. (My guess is that it's the microprinting.)
  • The first would be that users don't "install" the software that does the link spamming. This is done by other software, eg: Kaz-whatever. It's done secretly because IMHO no one would willingly say "yes, install this on my system" if they knew what it actually was. So IMHO it's basically the same as a trogan or a virus (and should be included in the virus updates from anti-virus makers).

    The second would be that maybe this is where Mozilla/Netscape and/or other browsers suddenly get their chance back. Since they are not so closely tied to the OS, and are not as popular, they don't get this sort of stuff. Same with Linux. I've been surfing with galeon for ages and have never had to worry about smart-tags, spyware, or anything like that. Because of the fact that IE is everywhere, included free with every copy, it's so much of a more attractive target for these "virus" makers. Solution (well, a temporary one until we can go to these guys houses and pistol whip them into submission): use a different browser.

    My $0.02
  • To me, the arrival of this technology is not surprising. A true marriage of biology and technology is inevitable. The universe is arguably a single machine, and every particle within it has been working in concert since its "creation." We cannot deny this cosmic collectivism. The fusion of living cells and chips is a logical progression in the evolution of our planet - there may be cultures in the universe which have long since mastered this concept. Once we have mastered this concept and are able to fully implement its every use and variaton, how much further down the road can a viable unified field theory be. Then again, maybe we are all just drones carrying out the will of the Empire of the Atoms. At least that's what the toaster has been whispering to me every morning for the last two months.
  • People at Caltech were publishing papers on this sort of thing more than 15 years ago. The main thing that may be new this time around is the means by which the patterns themselves are deposited. However, I don't think that has been the limiting factor in applying these techniques in the past.

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable. -- John Kenneth Galbraith