Washington, April 25 : Researchers have for the first time created a synthetic synapse circuit whose behaviour duplicates the function of a brain cell.
A synapse is a junction that permits a neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another nerve or brain cell.
The team, led by professors Alice Parker and Chongwu Zhou at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, combined circuit design with nanotechnology to address the complex problem of capturing brain function.
Carbon nanotubes are molecular carbon structures a million times smaller than a pencil point. These nanotubes can be used in electronic circuits, acting as metallic conductors or semiconductors, according to a California statement.
'This is a necessary first step in the process,' said Parker, who began looking at the possibility of developing a synthetic brain in 2006. 'We wanted to answer the question: Can you build a circuit that would act like a neuron? The next step is even more complex.'
'How can we build structures out of these circuits that mimic the function of the brain, which has 100 billion neurons and 10,000 synapses per neuron?'
Parker emphasized that the actual development of a synthetic brain, or even a functional brain area is decades away.
The human brain continually produces new neurons, makes new connections and adapts throughout life, and creating this process through analog circuits will be a monumental task, according to Parker.
She believes the breakthrough could have long-term implications for everything -- from developing prosthetic nanotechnology to heal traumatic brain injuries to developing intelligent, safe cars that would protect drivers in bold new ways.
These findings were presented at the IEEE/NIH 2011 Life Science Systems and Applications Workshop in the US.