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About this Article
Written by: Chris Kampmeier
Written on: May 1st, 2003
Tags: biomedical engineering, electrical engineering
Thumbnail by: Illumin
About the Author
Chris was an undergraduate in computer science and neuroscience from Orlando, FL. He was also a classical percussion performance minor, as well as a manager and DJ for student-run radio station KSCR.
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Volume V Issue II > Building Blocks of Thought: Engineering the Neuron
The brain is our body's information processing center. It controls everything that we do, making us intelligent, conscious, and alive. The brain is made up of over 100 billion neurons. The neuron, or nerve cell, is a type of cell responsible for the body's gathering, processing, and transmission of information. Much like a unit of computer memory, a neuron has inputs, outputs, and transmission lines. Advanced interdisciplinary engineers, proficient in both biotechnology and computer engineering, are modeling these neurons and the brain using computers. Their hope is to analyze the brain in enough detail that they can reverse-engineer it and recreate it in silicon. By creating neurons from non-biological components, engineers may be able to enhance both machine intelligence and human capability.

Introduction

The human brain is made up of over 100 billion neurons, and there may be that many more in the rest of the nervous system [1]. The importance of these cells for our species is undoubted, yet we know very little about their functioning en masse compared to other kinds of cells in the body. What follows is a simple biological introduction to the nerve cell, followed by an explanation of how advances in engineering will soon integrate the disparate fields of computer science, electrical engineering, and biology to introduce a higher level of brain function in a process called neural computing.

What is a neuron?

Illumin
Figure 1: Neurons are extremely important in connecting the nervous system, from the brain to the rest of the body.
Neurons are responsible for the body's gathering, processing, and transmission of information (see Fig. 1). All the neurons in the body make up the nervous system. To understand the neuron better, it may help to study the basic function of the brain, which is a part of the central nervous system. As explained by Carlson in Foundations of Physiological Psychology, an entry-level neuroscience text, "the brain is the organ that moves the muscles. That may sound simplistic, but ultimately, movement - or more accurately, behavior - is the primary function of the nervous system" [1]. This is called a functional analysis of the brain: the nervous system takes in sensory information about its surroundings from the peripheral nervous system, processes the information, and then transmits information to muscles, coordinating an output based on the inputs. All body functions, from breathing to speech to digestion, can be analyzed in this way.
In a similar fashion, a single nerve cell can be regarded as an input-output system. It has four functional parts.
Dendrites are tree-like structures that accept input from other neurons. The input is then analyzed in the cell body, or soma. Outputs are sent down the axon, a long stalk for transmitting the information over distance. Finally, the information leaves the nerve through synapses, which attach to other nerve cells. (See Fig. 2 for a depiction of a typical neuron). In the central nervous system, an average neuron has tens of thousands of synapse connections on its dendrites. Although the precise nature of the organization of neurons in the brain is not completely understood, it is known that these large networks of connections are what give the brain its power and versatility.
Lipothymia/Wikimedia​ Commons
Figure 2: Neurons use tree-like structures that accept and transmit information across the body.