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Physics professor creates artificial material that mimics neural tissue

Physics professor Seth Fraden (PHYS) and his research team have discovered a way to make soft material that can mimic neural tissue by studying the blue eel. Fraden received funding from a U.S. Army research laboratory, which routinely funds projects that could help soldiers in the field.

Creating artificial material that acts like neural tissue could lead researchers to the creation of similar artificial material that can act like neuromuscular tissue. Creating artificial muscle tissue could help develop ways to make soldiers “stronger and safer,” according to the research lab.

By studying the movements and biological and chemical processes of the eel, also known as the Central Pattern Generator, the researchers were able to develop a process that creates soft material, which can mimic the activities of neural tissues. The chemical networks, called the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, that the researchers used, allow the inanimate material to act like a neural system with great actuation (ability to act), sensing and control.

Fraden’s lab not only studies physics but also biology and chemistry. Fraden and his researchers challenged the idea that the animate and the inanimate are unable to intersect. The aim was to take the natural processes of living organisms and apply them to engineered material and to engineer an artificial system with movement as natural and smooth as biological systems.

Fraden and his team initially engineered a manmade control device creating neural patterns similar to biological processes without the help of computers or electrochemical instruments. Next, after developing techniques for the generation of chemical networks in artificial material, the team found that the chemical networks they had been working with shared the same processes as the Central Pattern Generator of the eel that inspired them.

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