Researchers have created a mini neural network

A Japanese team created a mini network of neurons in the laboratory, connecting the cells one by one through mobile “micro-plates”.

Our brain is a beautifully sophisticated organ, made up of a hundred billion neurons communicating with each other. Neuroscience research, which aims to understand these interactions, is based on in vivo studies (on animals), but especially on in vitro work (performed on neuronal cells grown in the laboratory). The problem of the in vitro model is that the connections forming between the cells can not always be controlled, which prevents a real reproduction of our brain. To alleviate this problem, Professor Shoji Takeuchi’s team announced on May 15, 2018 in the joutnal Micromachines to have created in vitro neural networks that reflect the circuits of the human brain.

The researchers created 150-micron long microplates made of parylene (a polymer) and coated with laminin, a protein that allows cell adhesion (see illustration below). In each plate, they grew a neuron that grows and develops according to the geometry of the support. They arrive in this way to control the morphology of the neurons.

© Shoji Takeuchi / University of Tokyo

“What was particularly important in this system was to control the connection of the neurons,” said Shotaro Yoshida, lead author of the study, in a press release. “We designed the microplates to be mobile, so that by pushing them away, we can physically move two neurons next to each other.” The researchers moved the microstructures to contact the axon of a neuron – the part that transmits the electrical signal – and the dendrite of another – the part that receives the signal.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time that a mobile micro-plate has been used to morphologically influence neurons and form functional connections,” says Shoji Takeuchi. The technique is to be improved, as stated in the scientific publication, but these advances present the possibility of developing an artificial brain, a powerful instrument for research in neuroscience.

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Carl Frantz

Polyglot, humanitarian, Carl was born in Germany but raised in the USA. He writes mostly on tech, science and culture.