The idea of integrating computer networks and the human body is driving research in a number of areas. Recently, two teams of researchers shared their respective projects, which explore how biological cells might become networked and how electronics could become directly integrated with human tissue.
Both presentations were part of the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Fall 2020 Virtual Meeting & Expo.
The first presentation, conducted by a team at the University of Maryland, is focused on communications networks that mimic electronic networks but are derived from biological cells. The second study, led out of University of Delaware, discusses the idea of interfacing hardware and human tissue.
Biological cells compute
Researchers at the University of Maryland are exploring the idea that biologically-based communication networks could control cells in the body and ultimately work to diagnose and treat medical conditions.
“We want to expand electronic information processing to include biology,” said William E. Bentley, principal investigator at the University of Maryland, in a press release. “Our goal is to incorporate biological cells in the computational decision-making process.”
The group’s proposal involves getting electrons to move around in cells, an operation called redox mediating. The cells would generate a current that creates a signal for communicating. Those currents could potentially provide communications as well as run electronics.
According to the release:
The new technology Bentley’s team developed relies on redox mediators, which move electrons around cells. These small molecules carry out cellular activities by accepting or giving up electrons through reduction or oxidation reactions. Because they can also exchange electrons with electrodes, thereby producing a current, redox mediators can bridge the gap between hardware and living tissue.
The team describes the idea of cellular feedback that could operate electronics. Potential applications might include a wearable device that could diagnose and treat a bacterial infection, for example, or a capsule that a person could swallow to track blood sugar and make insulin.
In ongoing work, the team is developing interfaces that could enable this sort of information exchange to occur.
Integration of electronics and tissue
The team from University of Delaware focused its presentation on the merger of humans and artificial intelligence through a kind of cyborg technology.
The term cyborg, popular in science fiction, is a portmanteau of the words cybernetic and organism and basically describes an organic, biomechatronical (electrical mechanical) fictional being—but perhaps not fictional for much longer.
Researchers are taking steps toward better integrating electronics with the body, according to the ACS release. The idea would be to more seamlessly connect electronics directly to human tissues. That’s different from having electronics merely implanted, as happens now with a pacemaker that uses wires to connect to the heart, for example.
One problem to overcome is that traditional implanted devices are subject to impedance or resistance. For example, the data that one wants to collect can get blocked because of scarring caused by the process of implanting microelectronic materials like gold and silicon. That scarring interrupts the electrical signals that must flow in order for applications in muscle or brain tissue, for example, to operate properly.
That’s where this work is focused: a seamless electronic transition from organic-to-electronic-to-mechanical. The cyborg, in other words.
“We got the idea for this project because we were trying to interface rigid, inorganic microelectrodes with the brain, but brains are made out of organic, salty, live materials,” said David Martin, Ph.D., who led the study, in a statement. “It wasn’t working well, so we thought there must be a better way.”
Coatings for the electronic components are the key to interfacing hardware and human tissue, the researchers believe. They tested organic electronic materials and found one that lowered impedance, thus improving energy and communications efficiency.
“We started looking at organic electronic materials like conjugated polymers that were being used in non-biological devices,” Martin said. “We found a chemically stable example that was sold commercially as an antistatic coating for electronic displays.”
The group believes this transition between organic tissue and machine could revolutionize implants. One angle they’ve been working on is creating polymers with neurotransmitters built onto them. They could be implanted for brain diagnostics.
“These biological-synthetic hybrid materials might someday be useful in merging artificial intelligence with the human brain,” Martin said.
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