The Reality Of Cyborgs Moves Closer
By David Steele
The Herald - London

The creation of a real-life cyborg, the part-human, part-machine character made famous in Hollywood blockbusters like Robocop and The Terminator, has moved a step closer.

Scientists in Germany have succeeded in melding living nerve cells and silicon to create the world's first neuronal chip. The neuron cell allows the passage of nerve impulses.

The breakthrough, linking nerve cells from a snail and a chip, opens the door to the sci-fi world of cyborg technology, and a double-edged sword for science: the technology could lead to computers with living brains and implants that can repair damaged spinal cords or eyes.

The former is a vision of half-living machines, with the ability to think creatively for themselves.

However, rather than Blade Runner or the more recent example of the genre, Artificial Intelligence, becoming reality, scientists appear determined that their discoveries are used in life- enhancing ways.

Peter Fromherz and Gunther Zeck, from the Max Planck institute for biochemistry in Munich, Germany, were the ones who succeeded in linking the snail cells and the chip.

The magazine, Physics World, reported the chip contains an array of cells enclosed by "picket fences" which allow the connection to be maintained as the cells grow. An electrical signal passes from the silicon into a neuron, and can then move into a neighbouring neuron along a link. The signal then passes back into the chip to complete the circuit, just like a conventional silicon switch.

Bruce Wheeler, from the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Illinois in America, said: "The work has an element of vision that will excite future generations of scientists."

However, there are still many hurdles to clear before an entire network of living cells can be built.