Our brains mainly consist of brain cells and the connections between them, making them quite modular and incredibly adaptable.
Brain synapses, the connections between neurons, seem to be responsible for at least some of the computational magic that allows us to think, move, and respond to all sorts of stimuli. Being able to replicate the functionality of synapses may allow us to simulate the brain’s activities, and therefore to study its behavior in a very hands-on way.
Researchers National Institute of Standards and Technology have done just that by creating functionally equivalent artificial synapses inside an electronic chip. They’re made of superconducting niobium electrodes separated by a manganese-silicon insulator. To pass through the insulator, the electric signals have to achieve a certain current threshold. But, this level can change with repeated electrical probing thanks to magnetic nanoparticles embedded into the insulator. Repeatedly sending signals with a lower level of current, the magnetic nanoparticles align more and more after each turn, meaning that the synapse eventually learns to pass the signals at that lower level.
This is essentially how a real synapse works and eventually connecting thousands, or millions, of these synapses in different configurations may allow researchers to mimic advanced brain activities. Maybe one day this will be a way to build a true artificial intelligence system, but we really hope it will be used to understand many brain diseases and conditions that are currently poorly understood.
Here’s a short NIST video about the artificial synapse technology: