The University of Southampton

Global interest surges in brain-computer interface breakthrough

Published: 23 April 2021

A ground-breaking study into brain and artificial neurons led by the Centre for Electronics Frontiers (CEF) has been highlighted as one of last year's most downloaded papers for Nature's Scientific Reports.

The novel research within CEF enabled brain neurons and artificial neurons to communicate with each other, demonstrating a key step toward brain-computer interfaces, artificial neural networks and advanced memory technologies - also known as memristors.

The research article, Memristive synapses connect brain and silicon spiking neurons, has been downloaded over 34,000 times across the world.

The paper is listed in the top 25 of Scientific Reports' Journal Top 100 collection for 2020. It is also the fourth most downloaded neuroscience article of the year, placing it in the top 0.2 percent of 2020's 1,750 subject papers.

The research was spearheaded by scientists from the Zepler Institute's CEF from the University of Southampton with partners at the University of Padova, University of Zurich and ETH Zurich.

Professor Themis Prodromakis, CEF Director, says: "Over the past decade, we have witnessed great progress been made in hardware for emulating Biology (AI hardware) as well as hardware for linking to Biology (Bioelectronics). The Centre for Electronics Frontiers has been developing novel research in both areas which has allowed us to demonstrate for the first how real and artificial intelligence can be merged, paving the way for emerging medical solutions where dysfunctional parts of the brain can be replaced with hardware.

"We are delighted that our peers found our work to be exciting and of high impact that led to it been accessed amongst the top papers in Nature Scientific Reports. This motivates us to continue our efforts on scaling-up such solutions for supporting next-generation prosthetics as well as providing a new fundamental tool for deciphering complex biological processes."

During the study, researchers in Italy cultivated rat neurons in their laboratory, whilst partners in Switzerland created artificial neurons on silicon microchips. The virtual laboratory was brought together via an elaborate setup of controlling memristive synapses developed at the University of Southampton.

The experiment captured spiking events being sent over the internet between the three locations, demonstrating that artificial and biological neurons are able to communicate bidirectionally and in real time.

Global attention in the research milestone has included praise from UC Berkeley's Professor Leon Chua, inventor of the memristor, who credited the work of Southampton's "famous research laboratory" in an IEEE Luminaries podcast.

Professor Prodromakis holds a prestigious Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies leading research in next-generation AI Hardware and his work has received many accolades, including a 2021 Blavatnik Award in Physical Sciences and Engineering.

"My group has been involved with developing the technology, models, tools and showcasing its use in applications from the very beginning," he explains. "Besides emerging memory uses and applications in neuromorphic computing architectures, it makes sense to use a technology that 'speaks the same language as biology' for interfacing Biology with Engineering; essentially memristors played the role of 'translators'.

"At the same time they allow us to emulate biological functions with great fidelity whilst resourcing to minute power, aiding global efforts for more efficient computing. Our recent work addresses long-outstanding challenges in neuroprosthetics and introduces AI interventions in the mix; overall, it is a great example of the vast possibilities this technology brings to life."

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