Infineon builds chip to read brain cell signals

SAN FRANCISCO, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Researchers at Infineon Technologies AG <IFXGn.DE> in Germany have developed new semiconductor technology that will allow scientists to read electrical signals in living nerve cells, the company said on Tuesday.

Being able to read and record the signals, with the aid of computers, will help scientists better understand how the brain works and could eventually lead to treatments for neurological diseases, like Alzheimer's, said Roland Thewes, senior director in corporate research at Munich-based Infineon.

"For example, you could put slices from brain nerve cells on the chip, apply drugs and see how the nerve signals" and cells react to a particular drug, he said in an interview.

Infineon researchers worked with scientists at the Max Planck Institute, located outside Munich, on the new biosensor chip, dubbed the "Neuro-Chip."

In a paper being presented on Tuesday at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference, Thewes and colleagues detail how they successfully recorded electrical signals in neurons from the brains of snails.

Neurons are the specialized cells that make up the nervous system in living organisms and communicate with each other through electrical pulses.

The Neuro-Chip, about the size of a fingernail, has 16,000 sensors that monitor electrical pulses in cells submerged in electrolyte nutrient fluid that coats the semiconductor and keeps the neurons alive, Thewes said.

Amplifiers embedded in the circuitry enable each sensor to detect and process the low voltage signals throughout the different cell layers. The data can then be transmitted to a computer and eventually transformed into a color picture for analysis.

Currently, researchers use microscopic needles to measure the electrical activity inside, which shortens the life of the cell, preventing study over a period of time and without the accuracy of the Neuro-Chip, Thewes said.

02/10/03 23:58 ET