An artificial neuron that mimics the function of human nerve cells has been developed by Swedish researchers, promising a breakthrough in the treatment of neurological disorders.
The neuron, described in the latest issue of the journal Biosensors & Bioelectronics, is made of conductive polymers and doesn’t contain any living parts.
Like real neurons, the artificial one can transmit signals by translating chemical signals into electrical impulses.
“Our artificial neuron functions like a human neuron”, said Agneta Richter-Dahlfors, professor of cellular microbiology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet, who led the team behind the invention. “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 living organisms, neurons are isolated from each other and forced to communicate via chemical substances known as neurotransmitters. Inside a neuron, these chemical signals are converted into an electrical action potential, which travels along the nerve fibre. When the signal reaches the end of the fibre - the synapse - the electrical signal is converted back into the release of chemicals that relay the information to the next cell.
The ability of the artificial neuron to receive chemical signals could open new possibilities in the treatment of neurological disorders.
Currently, electrical stimulation is the number one option for reinvigorating nerve function in damaged or degenerated organs. This includes pacemakers, hearing implants or nerve-connected prosthetics.
With the new technique developed by the Swedish researchers, it may be possible to stimulate neurons based on specific chemical signals received from different parts of the body.
“Next, we would like to miniaturise this device to enable implantation into the human body”, Richer-Dahlfors explained. “We foresee that, in the future, by adding the concept of wireless communication, the biosensor could be placed in one part of the body and trigger release of neurotransmitters at distant locations. Using such auto-regulated sensing and delivery, or possibly a remote control, new and exciting opportunities for future research and treatment of neurological disorders can be envisaged.”