Research from the University of Wisconsin–Madison points to progress in creating hybrid computer chips combining silicon and neurons. Biomedical engineers demonstrated a novel technique for weaving the tendrils of mouse nerve cells into a network of semiconductor tubes. Yeah, that's just an illustration above. But eventually, a neural-electronic device such as this could be used to study diseases of the nervous system, test drug efficacy, or potentially lead to new brain-machine interfaces. From Science News:
To lay the groundwork for a nerve-electronic hybrid, graduate student Minrui Yu of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and his colleagues created tubes of layered silicon and germanium, materials that could insulate electric signals sent by a nerve cell. The tubes were various sizes and shapes and big enough for a nerve cell's extensions to crawl through but too small for the cell's main body to get inside.
When the team seeded areas outside the tubes with mouse nerve cells the cells went exploring, sending their threadlike projections into the tubes and even following the curves of helical tunnels, the researchers report in an upcoming ACS Nano…
At this stage, the researchers have established that nerve cells are game for exploring the tiny tubes, which seem to be biologically friendly, and that the cell extensions will follow the network to link up physically. But it isn't clear if the nerves are talking to each other, sending signals the way they do in the body. Future work aims to get voltage sensors and other devices into the tubes so researchers can eavesdrop on the cells. The confining space of the little tunnels should be a good environment for listening in, perhaps allowing researchers to study how nerve cells respond to potential drugs or to compare the behavior of healthy neurons with malfunctioning ones such as those found in people with multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's.