Optogenetics: see how artificial and real neurons can communicate through light

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In 2015 we saw an incredible discovery: scientists were able to create the first artificial neuron that could simulate a human cell. 5 years later we have more news about this incredible creation that can be used to replace parts of the brain in the future, which would be incredibly beneficial for patients with lesions in this organ.

The novelty comes from an international team that is developing a project that now allows the communication of real and artificial neurons using a peculiar method: light. Called optogenetics, the technique does not use electrical signals as seen so far, it uses light to create a means of communication with real neurons through its rhythm.

For this to work, however, it is necessary for real neurons to be modified as well. In the sample below, you can see a neural network grown in a laboratory in four weeks. It was designed to produce light-sensitive proteins derived from algae that react to blue lighting.

The scientists then used an artificial network of neurons, like the one above, which measures just 0.8 by 0.8 millimeters to produce binary rhythms of blue light. The GIF above shows the response captured with calcium sensors and electrodes.

“The key to our success was to understand that the rhythms of artificial neurons had to match those of real neurons. Once we were able to do this, the biological network was able to respond to the ‘melodies’ sent by the artificial.”
Despite this, scientists say the electrode array was four times larger than the area they thought the signal would reach, so they may not have captured the full answer.

For now, the research was able to provide information that, in the future, may allow the creation of efficient neuroprostheses. At the moment, the difficulty is to reach a single neuron instead of a small group, which was the result obtained. However, thanks to the results obtained now, this may be possible in the future, to create an effective communication between these prostheses and the human brain.

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