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Research at RIT aims to build neurons from scratch

Oct 30, 2019

A researcher at the Rochester Institute of Technology has teamed up with universities across the country to build a neuron from scratch.

Equipment used in an effort to build a neuron at the University of Michigan, which is partnering with the Rochester Institute of Technology and five other universities to construct the cells.
Credit Evan Dougherty / University of Michigan Engineering

“Neurons are one of the most complex cells in our body,” said theoretical physicist Moumita Das, the RIT member of the six-university team. “So the experiments are quite challenging and, at the same time, exciting.”

The neuron is one of the basic structures of the brain and nervous system. Interactions between neurons “define who we are as people,” as the University of Queensland in Australia puts it.

But the project doesn’t end with one neuron. 

“The next step is to build a synapse, which is how neurons communicate,” Das said. “One neuron by itself is not going to do anything. Neurons have to be able to talk to each other.”

After that, said Das, the researchers plan to build a neural network -- a web of synthetic neurons that can communicate and solve problems.

The project will blend the disciplines of physics, chemistry, and biology, researchers said.

Ultimately, the project has medical applications, like repairing damaged spinal cords. But it’s also aimed at enhancing the capabilities of artificial intelligence.

Das acknowledged some ethical concerns about the work.

Moumita Das at RIT is part of an effort to build a neuron from scratch.
Credit Rochester Institute of Technology

“This is a high-risk, high-reward project, right? When you say, ‘synthetic neuron, a network of synthetic neurons,’ somebody might think that, ‘Oh, you’re going to build an artificial brain that can then, you know, replace human cognition,’ right? But that’s not what we are trying to do,” she said.

She said fears of a runaway project are unfounded.

“As scientists, you know, yes, we get excited about science, but we are also very careful people,” said Das. “Most of us have also grown up on a steady diet of dystopian science fiction, so I think we are all quite careful.”

Barbara Herr Harthorn is an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is working with the research team to identify ethical concerns.

“We’re looking for how the public makes sense of this,” she said. “The public should be engaged in this work, and if there is well-founded opposition, we need to know why.

“The public good is a fundamental aim -- this is technology development for the benefit of society,” she said. “How you determine in a really complicated, multicultural society like ours, what the benefit is, is a really valid concern.”

The work at RIT is funded through a $570,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The funding is set to last through August 2023.