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Artificial Neurons Force Venus Flytrap To Snap Its Jaws Shut

Artificial Neurons Force Venus Flytrap To Snap Its Jaws Shut

Artificial Neurons Force Venus Flytrap To Snap Its Jaws Shut

Artificial Neurons Force Venus Flytrap To Snap Its Jaws Shut

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A new study shows that artificial neurons, fabricated from organic components, can be integrated with biological systems – in this case the Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) – and send signals that can be interpreted by the natural system.

Animal cruelty concerns

Science has always found a rich source of inspiration from the melding of biology and technology. Our improved understanding of the nervous system and rapid advances in microchip design has produced innovations like brain-computer interfaces and the first steps towards brain implants.

But information released by the animal rights group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine last week in part highlighted the incredible difficulty of combining biological and non-biological systems.

These allegations were aimed at Elon Musk’s brain implant company, Neuralink, and the facilities of the University of California, Davis, where monkeys used in experiments designed to test the company’s flagship implant were held.

The most troubling allegations suggested that monkeys involved in the study had not been provided with adequate veterinary care. Non-human primates are rarely used in research because of the cost and heavy regulation involved in their care and suggestions that monkeys have been mistreated will, say the Physicians Committee, be investigated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Silicon safety

The reports highlighted a separate, more fundamental issue with neurotechnology research that goes beyond potential failures of animal welfare: the brain doesn’t interact well with conventional electronic components.

Silicon-based circuits commonly used in neurotechnology suffer from several limitations such as rigidity, poor biocompatibility, high circuit complexity and operation mechanisms fundamentally different from biological systems,” says Simone Fabiano, an assistant professor at Linkoping University. This poor biocompatibility means that animals involved in such research are at increased risk of brain damage and infection. The Physicians Committee said in their complaint that 15 of 23 monkeys involved in Neuralink’s research died before or during the experiments.

Fabiano is the senior author on a new paper that suggests an alternative route to designing neurotechnology that could create implants that work more safely and effectively alongside biological settings.

Biological neurons rely on the transmission of charged ions to function. The action potentials through which signals are transmitted in the brain, for example, require a stream of calcium and potassium ions in to and out of the cell respectively. But electronic devices operate in a fundamentally different way, using the flow of electrons instead.

Fabiano’s team designed an artificial neuron, fabricated from plastic and carbon, that could bypass many of the issues facing silicon technology. “The artificial neurons we have developed are based on the so-called mixed ion-electron conducting polymers, i.e., polymers that can transport both ions and electrons,” he explains. This property, Fabiano says, can improve the biocompatibility of their organic system.

Artificial signals help the Flytrap snap shut

To test their artificial neurons, the researchers used an unusual model, one that doesn’t even have a conventional nervous system: the Venus Flytrap. Fabiano explains that the team wanted an “easy-to-handle” model system for their research. The Flytrap, like other plants, has no nerves or neurons, but can generate action potentials. While in many plants, the exact function of these action potentials remains a bit of a mystery, in the carnivorous Flytrap, they are harnessed to allow the plant to rapidly shut its jaws on unsuspecting prey.

Fabiano and his team wired up their artificial neurons to Flytraps via electrodes and were able to force the Flytrap to shut its maw simply by firing an input signal through the artificial neurons.

In this video, action potentials inputted by an artificial neuron can be seen to induce a closing of the Venus Flytrap's lobes. Credit: Harikesh et al. 

The neurons’ use of biologically inspired ionic signaling is not their only benefit. The polymers, explains Fabiano, can be cast on materials like paper and plastic, making them flexible. The neurons also operate at voltages that are roughly a tenth of those required by silicon-based systems. In addition to making the devices better suited to an organic environment, this could, says Fabiano, potentially enable battery-free devices.

The research remains at an early stage. Integrating devices into complex nervous systems will require more innovation. Fabiano explains that the team next aim to produce a device that can match biological neurons in terms of frequency and energy efficiency. “We can accomplish this by downsizing the device dimensions and improving the electrical response of our mixed ion-electron conducting polymers,” he says.

Reference: Harikesh PC, Yang C, Tu D, et al. Organic electrochemical neurons and synapses with ion mediated spiking. Nat Commun. 2022. doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-28483-6

Meet the Author
Ruairi J Mackenzie
Ruairi J Mackenzie
Senior Science Writer