Brain-inspired chips could mean better computer processing and neural implants.
Inspired by the architecture of the brain, Duygu Kuzum has designed electronic devices that mimic the behavior of synapses, the connections between neurons. When she was a graduate student at Stanford, Kuzum initially focused on high-performance electronics for computer processors. But during a summer internship at Intel, she had a kind of neuro-epiphany. “I was always thinking, ‘Okay, now I’m designing and trying to increase the performance of these electronic components and trying to build a computer to be used by another computer, which is the human brain,’” she says. “And I realized that these two computers are built on and operate on fundamentally different principles.”
So Kuzum set out to design a computer chip based on the way the brain’s synapses process information. Unlike computer circuits, which are based on the binary choices of on or off, 0 or 1, synapses can operate more like a dimmer switch, with variations in strength. Using that insight, Kuzum and her Stanford colleagues created “nanoelectric synaptic grids”—miniaturized computer circuits that can understand and recall rather sophisticated patterns. The prototype opens the way to the development of small, portable, energy-efficient computers that can process complex sources of data, such as visual and auditory information. That same architecture, Kuzum believes, can also be used to design neural implants and prosthetic devices that act as supple, realistic interfaces between computer controls and living brain tissue.
Kuzum, who grew up and went to university in Ankara, Turkey, moved to a postdoc position at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011 and is now trying to create a new type of brain electrode using graphene, a form of carbon that is both flexible and transparent. Implanted in neural tissue, the electrodes could let researchers record the activity of nerve cells while simultaneously imaging their behavior.
“We cannot 100 percent replicate the brain,” Kuzum concedes. But, she suggests, maybe we can “build a system that’s more brain-inspired.”
—Stephen S. Hall
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