Researchers from RMIT University have developed a device that replicates the way the brain stores and loses information. The researchers drew inspiration from optogenetics, an emerging tool in biotechnology, to develop the device.
Notably, optogenetics allows scientists to delve into the body's electrical system with extreme precision and use light to manipulate neurons so that they can be turned on or off.
The new chip, developed by the researchers, is based on an ultra-thin material that changes electrical resistance in response to different wavelengths of light.
This enables it to mimic the way that neurons work to store and delete information in the brain.
Speaking about it, lead researcher of the team, Dr Sumeet Walia said the technology moves them closer towards artificial intelligence (AI) that can harness the brain's full sophisticated functionality.
Dr Walia further added that the optogenetically-inspired chip imitates the fundamental biology of nature's best computer—the human brain. He elaborated, "Being able to store, delete and process information is critical for computing, and the brain does this extremely efficiently. We're able to simulate the brain's neural approach simply by shining different colors onto our chip.”
He further said that the technology allows scientists move towards fast, efficient and secure light-based computing. According to him, it also brings them an important step closer to the realization of a bionic brain, a “brain-on-a-chip that can learn from its environment just like humans do."
Dr Taimur Ahmed, lead author of the study published in Advanced Functional Materials, further added that the ability to replicate neural behavior on an artificial chip offered exciting avenues for research across sectors. According to Dr Ahmed, the technology allows researchers to better understand the brain and how it's affected by disorders that disrupt neural connections, like Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
Notably, neural connections happen in the brain through electrical impulses. When tiny energy spikes reach a certain threshold of voltage, the neurons bind together and a memory is formed.
On the chip, something similar happens when light is used to generate a photocurrent. The shift between colours causes the current to flow in the reverse direction from positive to negative. This directional switch is similar to the binding and breaking of neural connections.
This in turn is akin to optogenetics, where light-induced modification of neurons causes them to either turn on or off, enabling or inhibiting connections to the next neuron in the chain.