In the April 22nd 2011 issue of ScienceDaily I came across a very intriguing article entitled “Functioning Synapse Created Using Carbon Nanotubes: Devices Might Be Used in Brain Prostheses or Synthetic Brains”. Synthetic brains? Really? I agree that it sounds extremely far-fetched but it appears as though scientists have taken a very important first step. Professor Alice Parker and Professor Chongwu Zhou of USC’s Engineering and Electrical Engineering Departments spear-headed a research team that recently made a profound advance using nanotechnology that will hopefully lead to a synthetic brain. The scientists needed to start from the inside out as they focused their efforts on mimicking the function of a neuron, the cell type responsible for the transport of electrical energy that stimulates the brain to do its thing. Parker and Zhou’s team made a carbon nanotube synapse circuit that functioned just like a neuron. These carbon nanotubes are so small that their diameter is a million times smaller than the tip of a pencil and they can be constructed in such a way that they act as electrical conductors.
Professor Parker made sure to note that this is only the very first step in what will be an incredibly daunting task. The human brain has roughly 100 billion neurons all of which contain about 10,000 synapses. I’ll spare us all the discomfort of trying to guess how many synapses that is, suffice it to say it’s a lot. Parker went on to describe what she feels will be the most necessary function that the team will tackle next with these circuits and that’s reproducing the brain’s ability to have plasticity.
Neural Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change its form and function by creating new cells, new connections and to strengthen connections in general. The human brain is arguably the most complex structure that has ever evolved and Professor Parker is well aware that it will be an immensely monumental undertaking to recreate its power. Even if we’re not able to actually reproduce a synthetic brain analog it would be of great benefit to the human race if we’re able to make progress in this area of research. Imagine the possibilities, we might be able to help millions of people throughout the world who suffer from traumatic brain injuries (or design technologies that help protect us from our own tendencies). One can’t help but wonder just how far this technology would be taken if it were to fall into the wrong hands. Too often innovations that were initially intended to help people end up being exploited for just the opposite purpose. Let us hope that as this research progresses that those who are responsible for its utilization will do so with the appropriate level of oversight and a strong sense of moral responsibility.
I’d like to the time to make mention of the fact that the team could not have dreamed of making such an innovation if it weren’t for their interdisciplinary approach and collaborative efforts in the fields of nanotechnology and electrical engineering. It’s this very same collaborative dynamic that we at the Massachusetts Academy of Sciences feel is so important to STEM education throughout the commonwealth. For more information on our STEM efforts please visit our homepage at http://www.massacadsciences.org/.
Written by: Matthew Panechelli