Scientific American magazine placed Professor Eshel Ben-Jacob and Dr. Itay Baruchi's creation of a type of organic memory chip on its list of the year's 50 most significant scientific discoveries.
In their research, the Israeli academics used nerve cells taken from rodents, and managed to create a simple method that simulates how information or memories are stored in humans and animals. Scientists hope that their work could lead to the development of computers that will be able to think creatively. Another Tel Aviv University researcher, Professor Beka Solomon, was also listed by Scientific American for her research in treating Parkinson's disease. "Computers that exist today are passive," Ben-Jacob explained. "You run a program and everything goes according to what is already input. In contrast, when a person undertakes a task you know he is going to use his personal judgment in accordance to circumstances that may develop."
For their research, Ben-Jacob and Baruchi mixed millions of neurons - nerve cells from the brain stems of rats - and created a type of "brain in a Petri dish." They then cast the fluid neurons evenly over an array of electrodes so that they could record their electrical signatures and the interaction of the neurons.
Neurons communicate with one another by electrically charged pulses. Each cell receives signals from many other neurons and reacts by creating their own. To the researchers' surprise, the communication between the neurons was not random, but adhered to specific structures that repeated themselves. Chemical stimulation caused certain electrical reactions, and this repeated itself.
"This dish has millions of neurons that can be imagined as millions of people each sending each other SMS messages," Ben-Jacob said. "Each person is connected to 100,000 others; each second he is sending a message to 100,000 people and receiving messages from 100,000 people. When we applied a certain chemical, neurons began to send messages in specific routes; independent correlation and synchronization between the cells developed. We can make the cells communicate in certain patterns that we control, and that is, in essence, memory."
What is the memory that the rodents' cells store? According to Ben-Jacob, the simple lab-created memories are not specific like those of humans. "The system does not remember 'father' or 'mother,' it is not a concrete memory. But here we have a module of inter-cell communication that can be used to create a module that carries meaning." Ben-Jacob's and Baruchi's findings have already improved scientists understanding of how the thought process occurs and memories are stored in the brain. They hope that in a relatively short time, their neurons system will be used in other experiments, such as checking how medications affect the brain.
In the distant future, they hope to achieve much more ambitious and far-reaching goals: Connecting between a regular computer and a network of neurons, creating a biological computer. Such a computer will be entirely different from today's static computers. It will identify senses, interact with its surroundings and even make independent decisions. In effect, the computer will have an autonomous brain with which it will function harmoniously.
"The dream is to create a system that on the one hand you can control, and on the other will still surprise, it will know how to improve itself and do things you had not programmed it in advance," Ben-Jacob said. "These hybrid computers won't look like laptops, but will be made-up of chips with different capabilities from computers" Ben-Jacob stressed Baruchi's importance to the research. "It's his project," he said. "Itay took a chance, chose a revolutionary subject and researched it while having to work for a living. Nowhere in the world are there such students."