“The biohybrid describes the meeting of biology and artificial systems. This is used in various fields. In our case, biohybrid means that neurons and artificial neurons meet. Artificial neurons are special electronic devices whose functions are similar to biological neurons,” explains Francesca Santoro. She is a biomedical and electrical engineer and studies biohybrid synapses.
His motivation: Looking to the future. “In 30 years, I will be part of the aging population approaching 60,” she says. “With this aging population, all diseases due to biological degeneration will be very present.”
More Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients
Biological degeneration: This is the regression and degradation of tissues. If such a change affects the nerve cells, it is called neurodegeneration. Neurodegenerative diseases include, for example, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and various dementia diseases. It is estimated that these diseases will increase in Germany by 2050: from less than two million patients to more than three million.
Francesca Santoro wants to develop healing approaches from the perspective of an electrical engineer. “I’m not a doctor or a neuroscientist,” she says. This is why, together with her team, she is trying to develop electronic devices and platforms that can be connected to the brain. “On the one hand, it could give us insight into brain functions – but also clues into how neurodegenerative processes might be stopped.”
prevent neurons from deteriorating
Neurons use electrical impulses to communicate with each other – and Francesca Santoro and her team are trying to establish this communication with artificial neurons. The researcher points out that this can be very useful when testing drugs. “That would then require far fewer test animals or real patient cells. For the future, however, our goal is of course that this technology can be used in clinics that treat neurodegenerative diseases.
Researchers have already succeeded in connecting a real neuron to one of the newly developed electronic devices. A great success. However, electronic devices are made of conventional metals, are very rigid and very flat. “Our brain cells are neither flat nor rigid. They’re very soft, they’re three-dimensional, they’re very bouncy, and they have lots of bulges in all sorts of directions. So now we are trying to develop new electronic devices that can also overcome these obstacles.
Artificial and real neurons communicate
In the end, a so-called “microdevice” with two central properties should be created. On the one hand, the electronics must look like a neuron. “The second point: this electronics should also think and act like neuronal cells.”
Indeed, Francesca Santoro and her team have found the component that can replace rigid and flat metal: conductive polymers, ie plastics. Not only can these adapt to the shape of a brain, but they can also transmit electrical impulses. In this way, Francesca Santoro and her team succeeded in transmitting information from a natural neuron to an artificial neuron: the first biohybrid synapse – and perhaps the cornerstone for being able to restore lost or damaged brain functions with networks of biohybrid neurons in the future. Or maybe also: creating entirely new brain functions?
manipulate the brain?
“We only use the electronic modes of action of these devices to the extent that we can use them to stimulate biological systems, for example,” Santoro explains. This is the limit. “It’s true: this line is thin and it’s a little scary. But our technology is intended for purely medical purposes.
So don’t worry that biohybrid synapses might be the next step in a future full of cyborgs with remote-controlled artificial brains? Franscesca Santoro laughs: “We are all cyborgs”, she says. “We all have smartphones or smartwatches, our heart rate and breathing are already monitored. And why are we doing this? Because we want to improve our quality of life. “Micro-devices” are part of our lives. And in a way, they make us good cyborgs because we use them to improve our lives. Not to optimize features, but to preserve them. For us to be well.