Replacing Synapses with a Single Switch

Allison Guy
June 16th 2012

Neural synapses in the human brain are extraordinarily complex structures. Responsible for relaying information between neurons, chemical synapses govern the release of over 100 different kinds of neurotransmitters, while electrical synapses deliver information via electricity for rapid-fire reflexes.

Now, researchers in Japan have invented a simplified synapse in the form of a "solid-state electrochemical nanodevice" that functions as a switch. The gap between these two synthetic synapses is bridged by a tiny copper wire, which changes in conductivity over time. Though at first it may seem a bit esoteric, this new device actually mimics what goes on in the construction of sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. The scientists behind this synapse are hopeful that it will lead to more life-like artificial minds, as well as treatments for the human brain.

It's interesting that this nanodevice may in some ways have improved upon a biological synapse. Evolution tends to lead to local maxima – it reaches the best design given existing structures, but it can't invent entirely new solutions out of nothing. The "blind spot" is a classic example: Because the optic nerve connects through the retina, there is a blank region in our field of vision where the nerve cells have crowded out the sensory cells. The brain has evolved very clever ways to deal with this deficit, but evolution hasn't actually been able to completely solve the problem.* Maybe science may soon find more "intelligent designs" that cut some of the evolutionary clutter. As always, we welcome our hyper-efficient cyborg overlords.

*Except in squid and octopi.

Via Io9. Image via Systemic Kids.

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Should men be able to give birth to children?


Koert van Mensvoort: Is the artificial womb frankenstein-like symbol of (male) engineers trying to steal the magical womb from women? Or… is it a feminist project and needed to reach through equality between the sexes? I personally lean towards the latter. To me it feels like progress if a girl can tell a guy to carry the womb for a change.

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