The path to combining man with machine into a real cyborg may be a little bit clearer thanks to new scientific research.
At the University of Wisconsin, Madison graduate students have been able to get nerve cell tendrils to grow through tiny tubes made of semi-conductor materials. While this doesn’t mean that people will be making cyborgs or computerized human brains soon, it does mean that the possibility of regenerating nerve cells damaged by disease or injury is now very real.
According to PhysOrg.com, Minrui Yu and his team, led by Justin Williams, a biomedical engineer, have made tubes out of silicon and germanium of various shapes and sizes. They are small enough for a nerve cell to grab on to, but not too big so that it can fit all the way inside.
The tubes were then layered with nerve cells from mice and were then observed to document how they would react. They nerve cells didn’t sit there lazily. Instead they began to send their tendrils through the tunnels, like they were searching for a route to something, or somewhere else. In some cases they actually followed the curves of the tubes, which theoretically means that the nerves could be grown into structures.
Researchers have known for a while now that nerve cells have a seek mechanism, but they aren’t sure what is it they are looking for. They also aren’t sure if it’s just a random thing they do. By setting up nerve cells to follow pre-planned paths through tiny tubes, the research team is hoping that they’ll be able find answers by connecting listening devices to pick up electrical emissions from nerves, which could lead to recorded conversations between nerve cells.
The point of this type of research is the hope that a way can be found to connect a computer to a bundle of nerve cells to reestablish communication that has been interrupted. The blending of man and machine has begun!
The computer would serve as a type of relay, allowing people who can no longer walk, for example, because of injury or disease, to regain their abilities. Because of those factors this particular research is even more illuminating than it might at first seem. This is because of the the fact that the miniature tubes that have been made closely resemble myelin, which is the outer insulating sheath that covers parts of normal nerve cells.
While the University of Wisconsin won’t be trotting out any cyborgs anytime soon, their research appears to be the beginning of something important. Based on what they’ve uncovered, human cells and computer parts are theoretically compatible.
All of the details from this interesting experiment can be found in the article: "Semiconductor Nanomembrane Tubes: Three-Dimensional Confinement for Controlled Neurite Outgrowth," which was published in the journal ACS Nano.