Nerve Cells Live Long And Talkative Lives In Sculpted Colonies On Silicon Chips

At a Texas meeting May 14, USC researcher Roberta Diaz Brinton will discuss her research and the hopes she has for the colonies of rat nerve cells she has cultured -- and even sculptured -- on silicon semiconductor substrate. She envisions that hybrid brain-electronic systems may soon serve to elucidate the process by which brains perform complex functions, including specific pattern recognition. Such systems may also form part of a new generation of chemical detectors.

Brinton, an associate professor of molecular pharmacology in the School of Pharmacy, also plans to use her wired colonies of cells for studies in her specialty, the study of the effects on the brain of the hormone estrogen and allied substances.

Finally and most ambitiously, Brinton and co-workers from the USC School of Engineering's department of biomedical engineering hope to someday be able to implant similar chips into living brains as both experimental instruments and eventually as prostheses.

The cells come from a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is associated with short term memory. Brinton dissociates the cells from their intricate network of interconnections with each other, and then places them as individual cells on a specially prepared silicon testbed studded with a matrix of electrodes.

The dissociated cells, approximately 80,000 of them, affix themselves to the testbed and grow, sending out processes and reforming synaptic contacts with each other. They can live on the chips for extended periods -- as long as months, according to Brinton.

Brinton's lab is one of only a very few in the world able to culture and study such nerve cell colonies.

During the course of the nearly two years Brinton has been working with the technique of culturing on silicon, she and her co-worker, graduate student Walid Sassou have learned to make and use masks made by traditional photo-resist processes to "sculpt" the colonies into desired shapes by placement of the s

Contact: Eric Mankin
University of Southern California

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