Using Nanowire Memristor to Artificially Emulate Biological Synapses of the Human Brain

One of the most significant difficulties faced by modern technology is emulating and understanding the human brain: for one thing, the potential to artificially reproduce the processing of brain signals is one of the foundation stones for the development of artificial intelligence; for another, gaining insights into the cognitive processes at the base of the human mind is still far off.

The study reported in Nature Communications, a prestigious journal, by Gianluca Milano and Carlo Ricciardi, PhD student and professor, respectively, of the Applied Science and Technology Department of the Politecnico di Torino, symbolizes a step closer toward these directions. As a matter of fact, the paper titled “Self-limited single nanowire systems combining all-in-one memristive and neuromorphic functionalities” demonstrated how it is feasible to artificially emulate the activity of synapses, or the connections between neurons regulating the learning processes in the human brain, in a single “nanowire” with a diameter thousands of times smaller than that of a strand of human hair.

The “memristor”—the electronic device with the potential to artificially reproduce the functions of biological synapses—is taken to a higher performing level by a crystalline nanowire. The application of nanotechnologies, which enable the manipulation of matter at the atomic level, has enabled, for the first time, the synaptic functions that were individually emulated using specific devices to be combined into a single device. To this end, the nanowire paves the way for extreme miniaturization of the “memristor,” thereby considerably reducing the complexity and energy consumption of the electronic circuits required for the implementation of learning algorithms.

Starting from 1971, when the “memristor” was theoretically presented by Prof. Leon Chua—currently visiting professor at the Politecnico di Torino, who was conferred an honorary degree by the University in 2015—this innovative technology not just enables smaller and higher performing devices to be developed for the implementation of increasingly “intelligent” computers, but is also an important step toward the emulation and understanding of the functioning of the brain.

The nanowire memristor represents a model system for the study of physical and electrochemical phenomena that govern biological synapses at the nanoscale. The work is the result of the collaboration between our research team and the RWTH University of Aachen in Germany, supported by INRiM, the National Institute of Metrological Research, and IIT, the Italian Institute of Technology.

Carlo Ricciardi, Professor, Department of Applied Science and Technology, Politecnico di Torino.

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