TAU takes first steps in creating living cyberbrain

Tel Aviv University scientists have shown that it is possible to store rudimentary memories in an artificial culture of live neurons.

July 8, 2007 01:25
4 minute read.
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A major challenge for pioneers in artificial intelligence has been to create a living neural network on an artificial substrate. Researching the field known as nanobiotechnology, Tel Aviv University scientists have shown that it is possible to store rudimentary memories in an artificial culture of live neurons. They are apparently the first in the world to have actually stored information in a cultured neural network for an extended period. Published in Physical Review E last month, TAU physics Professors Itay Baruchi and Eshel Ben-Jacob report the ability to record information in a man-made network of neurons. They say this is a step toward a cyborg-like amalgamation of living material and memory chips. The research may also help neurologists understand how our brains learn and store information. This is the first time, says Ben-Jacob, that multiple rudimentary memories have been imprinted in neural networks cultured outside the brain. "The main achievement was the fact that we used the inhibition of the inhibitory neurons to stimulate the memory patterns. The new memories persist for days without interfering with or replacing others. The fact that they are imprinted using local chemical stimulation provides valuable hints as to how information is stored and retrieved in the brain," he says. The results set the stage for the creation of a programmable neuromemory chip that could be hybridized with computer hardware to create the first neuro-silico cyberchip - an innovation with unimaginable capabilities. He stresses that they have not actually created a device, but have made a discovery that could pave the way to many inventions. One of these could be called a "neuro-silico cybrid brain" that could be used in cyborg-like systems for detecting dangerous toxins, analyzing brain activity, helping paralyzed people regain muscle control and more. Previously published research already indicated that coordinated neuron firing - referred to as synchronized bursting events - could be viewed as "memory templates" or "precursors of memory-related activity modes in task-performing in vivo networks." The researchers used an array of electrodes to monitor the firing patterns in a network of linked neurons. They mounted the cell culture on a polymer panel studded with electrodes, making it possible to monitor the patterns produced by firing neurons. All the cells on the electrode array came from the exterior layer of the brain, the cortex, which plays a major role in the formation of memories. They found that that they could create additional firing patterns that coexist with the spontaneous patterns, and believe that these new patterns represent simple memories stored in the neural network. In addition to producing the first chemically operated neuro-memory chip, the researchers propose that chemical stimulation may be crucial to learning and memory formation. Other scientists have tried to trigger neurons in such a way as to create a repeating pattern of signals sent from one nerve cell to another (which neuroscientists think is how memories form in the context of performing a task), but these targeted excitatory neurons. As a result, says Ben-Jacob, those experiments resulted in randomly escalated activity, which doesn't mimic what occurs when new information is learned. TASTIER, MORE FRAGRANT TOMATOES Although Israeli tomatoes are generally considered tasty, Israeli scientists claim they have genetically engineered a much tastier species with an improved odor. This achievement was recently published in the prestigious journal Nature Biotechnology. The paper claimed that more people prefer the flavor of the new tomato to that of unmodified tomatoes. Dr. Efraim Lewinsohn of the Neve Ya'ar Research Center in Ramat Yishay, Dr. Yaron Shitrit of Ben-Gurion University and doctoral student Rahel Davidovich-Recanati expressed a variant of a lemon basil gene in ripening tomatoes. The genetically modified fruits generated sufficiently different levels of rose- and lemon-scented aromas that 78 out of 82 people could distinguish them from conventional tomatoes. The change in smell - which the researchers said is more impressive than previous efforts - may be influenced by altered levels of volatile compounds normally generated by tomatoes.The GM tomatoes were rated tastier by 49 of the 82 people surveyed; 29 preferred unmodified tomatoes, and four didn't express a preference. One potential drawback is that the GM tomatoes contain around half as much lycopene as traditional tomatoes, so they don't look as red. Lycopene is a beneficial antioxidant that is believed to counteract heart disease and cancer. Although some evaluators considered the GM tomato sweeter, sugar levels weren't affected by the genetic modification. Lewisohn said the same approach might enable modification of the aromas of a variety of fruits and flowers. NEWLY MADE METER MAIDS Israeli engineers are among the best in the world when it comes to alternative parking meters. Several years ago, they developed EZ-Park, a plastic device that one presses to "start the meter running" before hanging it inside your car. You don't have to look for a parking meter and deposit coins, and you pay only for the time actually used. Many people are pleased with it - certainly happier than with conventional meters, or with coin-operated devices on the sidewalk that create custom cards. Now there is another alternative. The Mobydom company offers the PaNGo system, in which you can pay via your cellular phone. You dial a special number before leaving your car and again when you return; the service calculates how much you owe the municipality. Municipal parking inspectors learn whether you've paid by checking online, and will not give you a fine, the company says. So far, 30,000 drivers have subscribed to the service for street parking, and it is now being offered in certain lots. Subscribers will also receive data before leaving home on which parking lots still have empty places. Unlike EZ-Park, you don't have to worry about getting a ticket if your parking device suddenly goes dead because the battery is drained, or fear that someone will try to break into your car to steal the device. But other drivers will continue to use the EZ-Park. What is clear is that ugly parking meters or ticket printers that break down (or are vandalized) are no longer needed.

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