A new study shows innovative brain-like computing at molecular levels

It is the first-time researchers have been able to create a material that can mimic a brain-like computation at the most minuscule scale of particles.
Brittney Grimes
Brain-like computation concept.
Brain-like computation concept.


Researchers have revealed, for the first time ever, that a brain-like computing system is possible at the smallest scale of atoms.

The study was conducted at the University of Limerick’s (UL) Bernal Institute in Ireland by a team of researchers from across the globe who created a new type of organic material that can learn from its prior behavior.

The researchers discovered a dynamic molecular switch that emulates synaptic behavior, or communication between neurons.

The study was published today, Nov. 21, in the journal Nature Materials.

The research team was led by Damien Thompson, a professor of Molecular Modelling in UL’s Department of Physics and director of SSPC, the UL-hosted Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Pharmaceuticals, along with Christian Nijhuis at the Centre for Molecules and Brain-Inspired Nano Systems in the University of Twente and Enrique del Barco from the University of Central Florida.


The team created a two-nanometer-thick layer of molecules. The size, in comparison, is 50,000 times thinner than a strand of hair, and it has the ability to remember its history as electrons pass through. “Switching probability and the values of the on/off states continually change in the molecular material, which provides a disruptive new alternative to conventional silicon-based digital switches that can only ever be either on or off” said Thompson.

The research team demonstrated the new materials and properties of them by using experimental characterizations and electrical measurements. These dimensions were supported by multi-scale model systems spanning from predictability of the molecular structures to analytical mathematical modeling of the electrical information.

Creating the novel material through imitating biological properties

The novel dynamic behavior of the synapses at the molecular level was imitated by combining fast electron transfer with slower proton coupling limited by diffusion, similar to the role of biological calcium ions or neurotransmitters, the study stated.

The behavior also displays all the mathematical logic functions needed in deep learning, a subset of machine learning within artificial intelligence. In doing so, it successfully emulated Pavlovian ‘call and response’ synaptic brain-like behavior. In Pavlovian response, Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Ivan Pavlov found that dogs, and other animals, could be conditioned to respond involuntarily to rewards, which became the ideology of classical conditioning.

The transformation can emulate the plasticity of synapse neuronal junctions, which are the sites where the transmission of electric nerve impulses occur between two neurons. “The community has long known that silicon technology works completely differently from how our brains work and so we used new types of electronic materials based on soft molecules to emulate brain-like computing networks,” said Thompson.

Future applications

The team was able to combine their knowledge and skills in “materials modeling, synthesis, and characterization to the point where we could demonstrate these new brain-like computing properties,” Thompson stated.

The researchers mentioned that the method and new material can be applied to dynamic molecular systems driven by other stimuli in the future, such as light, and added to different kinds of dynamic covalent bond formation, in which the material would use its plasticity to remember and take the shape of various other materials.

“This is just the start. We are already busy expanding this next generation of intelligent molecular materials, which is enabling development of sustainable alternative technologies to tackle grand challenges in energy, environment, and health,” said Thompson.

Norelee Kennedy, professor and vice president of research at UL, agrees. “Our researchers are continuously finding new ways of making more effective, more sustainable materials,” Kennedy stated. “This latest finding is very exciting, demonstrating the reach and ambition of our international collaborations and showcasing our world-leading ability at UL to encode useful properties into organic materials,” she continued.

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