Pulse 149: Protein Nanowires for Brain-Computer Interfaces

27 April 2020
Giulio Prisco

Brain Computer

Advances in bio-inspired, brain-like computing devices (see below) are opening new roads toward the development of brain-like (neuromorphic) computing devices. They are based on protein nanowires, which could emulate the low-power efficiency of biological brains.

“This is the first time that a device can function at the same voltage level as the brain,” said researcher Jun Yao in a press release. “People probably didn’t even dare to hope that we could create a device that is as power-efficient as the biological counterparts in a brain, but now we have realistic evidence of ultra-low power computing capabilities. It’s a concept breakthrough and we think it’s going to cause a lot of exploration in electronics that work in the biological voltage regime.”

Implanted protein nanowires could also be used in next-generation brain-computer interfaces. “This offers hope in the feasibility that one day this device can talk to actual neurons in biological systems,” said Yao.

Advances in Brain-Like Computing Devices

Researchers at University of Massachusetts Amherst have found a way to use  protein nanowires (biological electricity conducting filaments) to make a neuromorphic memristor or "memory transistor" device.

A study published in Nature Communications shows that the devices run very efficiently on very low power, as brains do, to carry signals between neurons.

Possible applications include devices to monitor heart rate. And, in the longer term, applications may include neuromorphic computers and brain-computer interfaces.

Toward Stable Brain-Computer Interfaces

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh have found a way to significantly improve brain-computer interfaces and their ability to remain stabilized during use. This greatly reduces or potentially eliminates the need to recalibrate these devices during or between experiments.

In a study published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, the researchers present a machine learning algorithm that allows users to continue controlling brain-computer interfaces in the presence of these instabilities.

Cellular Cancer Protection May Enable Therapies

Researchers at University of Bayreuth have discovered a natural protective mechanism that leads to the programmed death of potentially diseased cells.

The mechanism is described in a study published in Nature. It protects from cancer that can develop as a result of irregular distribution of genetic information to daughter cells. The enzyme separase plays a central role in these processes.

The researchers are persuaded that this discovery could possibly permit selectively destroying cancer cells with the very proteins that are used by healthy cells for their own self-protection.

Electronic Skin Monitors Body Health

Caltech researchers have developed electronic skin that monitors the body's vital signs while being powered by sweat.  It is described in a paper published in Science Robotics.

The electronic skin is made from soft, flexible rubber and can be embedded with sensors that monitor information like heart rate, body temperature, levels of blood sugar, and metabolic byproducts that are indicators of health. It can even monitor the nerve signals that control our muscles. The electronic skin doesn’t need a battery, as it runs solely on biofuel cells powered by one of the body's own waste products.

Engineering Immune Cells to Fight COVID-19

Scientists at Duke-NUS Medical School are exploring the engineering of specific virus-targeting receptors onto a patient's own immune cells as a potential therapy for controlling infectious diseases, including the COVID-19-causing virus, SARS-CoV-2.

This therapy is described in a research paper published in Journal of Experimental Medicine. It involves extracting immune cells from a patient's blood and engineering one of two types of receptors onto them: chimeric antigen receptors (CAR) or T cell receptors (TCR). These receptors allow the engineered T lymphocytes to recognize cancerous or virus infected cells.

Switching Off Cancer’s Runaway Growth

Scientists at University of Michigan have identified the binding site where drug compounds could activate a key braking mechanism against the runaway growth of many types of cancer. The discovery is detailed in a study published in Cell.

The scientists consider this a critical step toward developing a potential new class of anti-cancer drugs that enhance the activity of a prevalent family of tumor suppressor proteins. They have the potential to turn cancer's "off switch."

Remotely Control the Release of Stress Hormones

Using magnetic nanoparticles, MIT researchers have devised a way to stimulate the adrenal gland in rodents to control release of hormones linked to stress. Abnormal levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are linked to a variety of mental health disorders, including depression and PTSD.

The method is described in a paper published in Science Advances. The researchers designed nanoparticles made of magnetite, injected the nanoparticles into the adrenal glands of laboratory rats, and demonstrated the possibility to control the release of stress hormones with magnetic fields.

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