Naweed I. Syed
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Naweed I. Syed


The science fiction of blending man and machine like 'The Six Million Dollar Man' and 'The Terminator' on screen is quite familiar to us for decades. Now Dr. Naweed Syed a Pakistani Canadian scientist estimates science-fiction type 'Machine-Men' may be developed within 10-20 years, using his silicon chip.

Dr. Naweed Syed, who is a specialist in the field of biomedical engineering and member of the medicine faculty at the University of Calgary, Canada, became the first scientist who managed to 'connect brain cells to a silicon chip'. The discovery 'Brain on a chip' is a major step in the research of integrating computers with human brains to help people control artificial limbs, monitor people's vital signs, correct memory loss or impaired vision.

The bionic hybrid age may well be flickering to life 'real life' in the Calgary lab where Dr. Syed made history fusing snail brain cells to a computer microchip are poised to try the same feat with human cells.

Dr. Naweeed Syed at the University of Calgary's Hotchkiss Brain Institute announced that they have made a key advance in connecting brain cells to a newly designed silicon chip, crafted with the National Research Council of Canada that allows them to "hear" the conversation between living tissue and an electronic device as never before.

Published online in the journal Biomedical Microdevices, the latest Calgary work makes it immediately possible to use a neurochip to screen drugs for patients with brain disorders and determine which ones are likely to work based on what the brain cells say.

Dr. Syed said his team plans to run the first drug-screening experiment within the next few months on brain tissue taken from a patient undergoing surgery for epilepsy. Being able to monitor the dialogue between cell and silicon chip is a crucial step toward one day manipulating it, raising the possibility of neurochip implants that can operate artificial limbs, help restore sight or language after a stroke, or repair neurons that malfunction in a wide range of brain disorders, from Parkinson's disease to Alzheimer's.

The work also hints of a future in which living neurons could help drive silicon circuits in a central processing unit, becoming part of what some observers have dubbed 'an organic computer.'

Until now, the Calgary group had conducted most of its research on cells taken from rat and snail brains. Snail neurons, Dr. Syed said, are four to 10 times the size of human brain cells and easier to manipulate on a chip one millimetre square.

While the size of the chip has not changed, he explained the new design will allow researchers to monitor brain-cell activity in powerful detail over several days.

Brain cells talk to each other in a language of electrical and chemical signals that prompt each neuron to either fire up or relax. Chemical signals pass between an array of nerve fibres, known as synaptic connections, that look much like tree branches under a microscope. Electrical signals pass through gateways on the cell surface called ion channels.

 

The group developed a special recording device that is embedded beneath the surface of the microchip, which in turn connects to a patch clamp that can amplify all the activity taking place between the brain cells on the chip's surface.

Dr. Syed said, we can track subtle changes in brain activity at the level of ion channels and synaptic potentials, which are the most suitable target sites for drug development.

As it stands, most drug screening is a cumbersome process involving cells on a Petri dish that can be measured only one or two cells at a time. The chip method allows researchers to record whole networks of cells at once.

The new neurochips have also been fully automated so that any researcher, without months of training can marry cells, from the heart, or smooth muscle, to the microchip and easily gauge their reaction to various medications, Dr. Syed said. But the chip doesn't come cheap, he admitted, estimating that for now the cost would run at $30,000 for 750 reusable chips.

In his research, Dr. Syed utilizes modern, state-of-the-art electrophysiological, patchclamp, time-lapse video and fluorescence imaging, cell culture and molecular biological techniques. His prime interest is in the cellular and molecular basis of rhythm generation and specific synapse formation. He specifically studies the intrinsic and network properties of various neuronal ensembles which underlie rhythmic behaviours between the identified Lymnaea neurons such as locomotion and respiration.

Dr. Naweed syed is also interested in investigating the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying nervous system development and plasticity. His research programme is directed towards determining how neurons find their path en route towards their targets and form specific synaptic connections with other neurons, and how their morphology and physiology is modified by injury or environmental stress. Finding answers to these questions is fundamental if we are to fully understand nervous system functions, says Dr. Syed.

Dr. Syed, who is in his fifties grew up watching The Six Million Dollar Man, said he sees the neurochip as an evolving work that will eventually stand as an implantable device that could direct brain cells to either fire up or say, 'Hey, guys, calm down.' That's what the dream really is all about, where a man-made device can be integrated into living human tissue and become part of it, Dr. Syed said. The humbling part, he said, has been the complex wiring of the human brain.

Several international groups have similar dreams. Since the 2004 breakthrough, a European team has fused mammalian cells to a silicon interface, and perhaps most memorably, US researchers unveiled monkeys that could feed themselves peanuts by operating a robotic arm with mind control.

Members of the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology conduct exciting, leading edge research are well funded by international, national and provincial agencies and publish extensively in the very best journals. We invite potential graduate students and postdocs to give Calgary careful consideration. Not only do we offer excellent training opportunities for young scientists, but the natural beauty surrounding Calgary is breathtaking, providing year-round recreational opportunities; 'Extraordinary science in an extraordinary location!' says Dr. Syed.

Dr. Naweed Imam Syed was born in Karachi and has studied at University of Leeds. He has travelled world-wide giving lectures and presenting presentations about the human mind and his mini-chip.

“A lot of people still think bionics is science fiction”, it's not. It's already here, says Dr. Syed.

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