It's Alive!

Brain cells and silicon learn to get along.

by Photo: Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry
Snail neurons, caged behind plastic posts, are linked to a silicon chip, formin gthe first organic-to-man-made circuit in history.Photo: Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry

If the photograph to the left looks like science fiction -- say, a slimy creature's brain cell hooked up to a man-made computer circuit -- sthere's a reason. It is, in fact, the neuron of a pond snail linked to a silicon chip.

But it's not science fiction. Peter Fromherz and colleagues at Munich's Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry have created the world's first living silicon circuit. They coated the chip with a special protein, then sucked snail neurons out of a solution and blew them onto the chip. Next, they squirted an electric pulse into the cell and watched it travel through a simple network: two connections made up of living cells, and two etched into the chip.

Ultimately, scientists hope to learn much about how neurons connect to form memories. Is it also the first step toward brain repair and biological computers? "That," replies Fromherz, "is still science fiction."