In a crucial partnership, brain function relies on its primary cell, the neuron, connecting with other neurons to form a circuit known as a synapse to produce thoughts, memory, speech, and movement. Electronics are currently being developed to mimic these neurons and synapses, and achieve brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), in a field known as neuromorphic engineering.
It is hoped these biomimetic neuromorphic systems will fuse silicon and brain neurons, achieving a synergy between natural and artificial neuronal networks in the body to pave the way for ‘neurobiohybrids’, which will include living robots, human memory restoration, and intelligent neuroprostheses.
Cybernetic vision is possible
Now, a study led by researchers at Bar-Ilan University shows the brain can combine natural and artificial vision in blind rodents. The team states their results support the use of combined neuroprosthetic and natural vision in the restoration of sight for patients with macular degeneration (AMD), a common form of blindness. The study is published in the journal Current Biology.
Previous studies show AMD causes blindness in millions of people globally. AMD affects the macular of the retina, a thin layer of tissue lining the back of the eye internally, processing the information transported from the eye to the brain. Currently, there is no cure for AMD, it is hoped recent advancements in artificial retina implants may lead to effective treatment. This could mean that future technologies aiming to restore and enhance organ function will rely on efficacious communication between living and artificial biomimetic systems.
Interfacing neuromorphic devices with the real brain is a crucial element of the neurobiohybrid field, with the societal and economic impact of intelligent neuroprostheses predicted to be transformative, proffering novel therapeutics for a number of diseases, way beyond traditional pharmaceuticals. The current study investigates the interaction of neuroprosthetic and natural vision with the brain in rats implanted with retinal implants.
A neuromorphic retinal implant
The current study utilizes a retinal implant composed of dozens of tiny solar cells and electrodes smaller than the width of a hair capable of electrically stimulating remaining retinal cells to restore sight.
A unique projection system stimulated natural vision or artificial vision or a combination of natural and artificial vision whilst simultaneously recording the cortical responses in rodents implanted with retinal implants. Results show visually evoked potentials recorded in rats with retinal implants indicate the brain integrates natural and artificial vision while maintaining visual-based processing information.
The lab states they observed highly comparable interactions of natural and prosthetic vision in the visual cortex, the region in the brain responsible for sight, including a close correlation in results for basic vision tests. They go on to add their results have implications for better restoration of sight in AMD patients implanted with retinal prosthetic devices and supporting their hypothesis prosthetic and natural vision can be integrated within the brain.
The team surmises the brain forms a neurobiohybrid connection between artificial and natural vision to restore sight in an animal model of AMD. For the future, the researchers state their results have far-reaching implications for future neurobiohybrid brain-computer interfaces where artificial and biological processes interact and communicate.
Source: Bar-Ilan University
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