The Astounding Nerve Electronic Hybrid

Someday you might be like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. No, you won’t be a Vulcan, but you may have the ability to mind-meld like the popular science fiction character.

A discovery about the biological structure of mouse nerve cells has led researchers to consider a revolutionary concept: a nerve-electronic hybrid.

Such a concept could become reality if nanotubes are created as special semiconductor conduits with an architecture that permits nerve cells to twist their tendrils like entwined thread establishing an intricate network interface between machines and living tissue.  

Nanomaterials scientist Nicholas Kotov told that “This is quite innovative and interesting. There is a great need for interfaces between electronic and neuronal tissues.” Kotov, is with the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Building a nerve-electronic hybrid

Pioneering territory never before explored takes patience and imagination. Graduate student Minrui Yu of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and his team have plenty of both when they undertook the groundbreaking project.

Nanomembranes composed of strained silicon and germanium were constructed in careful layers and fashioned to act as a cell culture substrate for the electrical pulses sent by the primary cortical neurons threaded through them. The work was exacting and delicate as the tubes had to be exactly the right diameter to permit neuron threads to grow through without obstruction while inhibiting the cell itself from slipping inside.

While seeding the nanotubes the team discovered the mouse nerve cells readily adopted to the tube and growth within a tube could be limited to just a single axon from the cell. The cell’s threadlike axons even followed the curvature of a tube. Because of the nerve’s ability to be manipulated in a 3D environment the tube was able to act as an insulator making it a biologically friendly environment.

The next experiment the team envisions is monitoring the cells with sensors, including voltage detectors, to determine if the nerves are communicating with each other and are functioning normally.

Biomedical engineer Justin Williams, who led the research, admits to being impressed with the results and is enthusiastic about the progress. “They seem to like the tubes. Neurons left to their own devices will kind of glom on to one another or connect randomly to other cells, neither of which is a good model for how neurons work.”

The nanotube approach offers the possibility of engineering intricate networks with precise parameters designed for specific tasks.

Besides the promise of applying the technology to better study and understand the exact bio-mechanism of nerve cells, the process may also lead to a clearer picture of nerve cell interaction with pharmaceutical drugs. The team also sees future medical applications to treat people afflicted with diseases that affect nerve cells.

In the future the machine-meld capabilities will be expanded as well and some researchers see the process the University of Michigan team is pioneering will open the door to technologies that permit total mind-machine and mind-to-mind interface.

When that day arrives we may all be part Vulcan. Live long and prosper.  

ACS Nano has published the research, “Semiconductor Nanomembrane Tubes: Three-Dimensional Confinement for Controlled Neurite Outgrowth.”