"But the whole scene of this voyage made so strong an impression on my mind, and is so deeply fixed in my memory, that in committing it to paper I did not omit one material circumstance" Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

by Byron L. Barksdale, M.D.

The Internet and World Wide Web have exponentially expanded their presence and influence globally over the last three decades.  In 1948, Alan Mathison Turing, a British mathematician, wrote a paper entitled, "Intelligent Machinery",  wherein he conjectured about artificial intelligence, a "B-type unorganized machine" (similar to an infant's mind) comprised of artificial neurons and inter-connections, and anticipated today's science of "connectionism": computers using "neural networks" that attempt to simulate the anatomic morphology and physiologic systems of the human brain.

The Internet is practically considered a “life form” by the public media and Internet users. Today, we anthropomorphize the ethereal nature of the Internet with terms such as the “backbone of the Internet” and read of future applications of biological macromolecules to computer sciences portending the era of “biologically enhanced  intelligent computers” with increasing sophistication during the next millennium.

Today's Internet is "passive".  There is "end-to-end" transmission of  data or information from one location to another location but little, if any, activity in-transit upon the data or information.  A future, "active", intelligent Internet will be capable of making decisions, solving problems and learning. As construction machinery has extended the capabilities of the human skeletal-musculature system and microscopes and telescopes have extended the capabilities of our visual system, the day will come when computers and an "active" Internet will significantly extend the capabilities of our cognitive systems.  The interfaces and interactions between humans and computers will continue to shift toward cognitive activities and processes of computers and the "active" Internet.

When will the "active" Internet be "conscious"?  Consciousness is a subject of lively discussion as to its etiology and cerebral basis. In mammalian brainstems, there is a  highly developed system, the "reticular activating system", which plays a crucial role in the state of "being conscious".  The reticular activating system amalgamates impulses received from various levels of the brainstem and spinal cord, then relays this information to the thalamus.  The thalamus acts as a sort of "gatekeeper" which further relays information to the cerebral cortex providing the substrates for consciousness.  A "conscious" Internet would likely be founded upon an "artificial" reticular activating system which would receive information from various levels and locations of the Internet, then relay this information to "higher Internet levels".

DNA is the macromolecule most often suggested as being plausible for use in building very small electrical and computer devices.  Macromolecules which self-assemble into predictable 3-dimensional structures or attach readily to other macromolecules could be utilized in a variety of ways.  While organic macromolecules will certainly play a role in the future "intelligent" bio-computers, the authors doubt that DNA will be the molecule which actually harbors this "intelligence"; rather, a bio-engineered unit mimicking synaptic structures is more likely. One use of DNA is segments  of DNA can be sequenced into defined segments representing numbers, etc.  Another possibility is the introduction of "stem cell precursors" onto appropriate templates to "setup the wiring" of bio-computer components. A bio-computer will have electrochemical transmission of information as in a synapse.  DNA, per se, does not readily lend itself to this possibility. The intent of this article is to simplify several concepts of the human central nervous system in order to better understand what may be needed in regard to design and construction of bio-computers and an intelligent biological Internet .

Study of the human nervous system has changed from a classical neuroanatomic approach to a cellular approach within the subdisciplines of cell biology. Hence, to add significant potential biological improvements to networks and the Internet, it is important to continually direct research and development of biological computers and a biological Internet towards artificial neural networks founded upon primary research within the subdisciplines of human functional neuroanatomy and neurobiology. The authors have named this field of study as well as the provision of applicable products and services to companies and individuals: NeuroInternetics ™.

The primary function of the human nervous system,  future sophisticated networks and the future "active" Internet, is the detection, processing, storage, transfer, and, after precise discrimination, the selective sharing,  where and when needed, of information with adjacent or remote systems and networks to effectively and efficiently respond to any incoming stimuli or information received, regardless of origin (internal or external). Simple reflexes or responses do not require consciousness, intelligence, memory or reasoning. Simple reflexes and responses are well honed over thousands of years of evolution. Normal reflexes and responses are usually fast and effectively executed for the welfare and well being of the living creature. Cognitively based responses are far more complicated.  To define, localize and understand the neural basis of  consciousness, thinking, reasoning, and memory at the cellular and molecular level and how they invariably proceed to observable actions, responses or behavior effected from the "working human mind" deal with the very basic nature of Man, Homo sapiens, in his total environment.

The challenge and tasks of the future are to be informed of the rapid advances in human neurosciences, including the neural basis of learning and memory, and integrate this new knowledge, where feasible, into networks and the Internet. Because the field of NeuroInternetics ™ is immense, this discussion will be limited to three features of future biological networks and a biological Internet: learning, memory, and homeostasis. Homeostasis is the state of the internal environment attaining a dynamically maintained equilibrium. Learning and memory deal with a cognitive biological Internet interacting with other networks and the external “non-networked” World while homeostasis deals with the milieu or environment surrounding the internal structures and components of a biological Internet.

The biological basis of learning and memory, prior to 1960, was theorized to reside intracellularly within neurons or the supporting cells (the “glia”) of the human central nervous system. In a nutshell, during the “learning experience”, specific macromolecules were synthesized, encoded and stored within cells as “learned macromolecules” that could be retrieved when necessary back into consciousness as a memory of the “learned experience”. Theoretically, any “learned macromolecule” could be extracted and administered, from one living organism to another living organism, obviating the need for an actual “learning experience”. This theory has yet to be proven and today has been replaced in favor of a “fresh” approach.

Happily, for the field of NeuroInternetics ™ , among many neuroscientists today, the current consensus is memory and learning are not intracellular events, but, rather, neurobiological changes at the level of innumerable synapses. Synapses are evolutionary complex anatomic and physiologic junctions, within the nervous system, where information-sending neurons release a variety of chemical neurotransmitters that diffuse across a synaptic cleft, then bind to and interact with specific post-synaptic membrane stereospecific receptors on information-receiving neurons. These information-receiving neurons immediately react and, may subsequently respond to the stimuli or information received. Transmittal of post-synaptic reactions (to received information from pre-synaptic sources) may not only be to remote structures, networks or systems but, also back to the pre-synaptic neurons.  In effect, post-synaptic neurons, through their influences, both positively and negatively, on pre-synaptic neurons, "glial microdomains" and synaptic transmission, can modulate, through neurotransmitter release from pre-synaptic terminals, their own neural activity to optimize any required effect or desired response, guided by retrieval from memory or acquired through learning, to stimuli or information received.  We are most interested in the "big picture" of how all these cerebral cellular and molecular interactions come together in the brain to produce perception, "levels of consciousness", thinking, reasoning, learning and memory, then how might this biology be transferred and constructed into bio-computers and an "intelligent" Internet.

If these synaptic structures, processes, and events can be replicated and applied (perhaps, with a self-organizing "synaptic slurry"), by the introduction of biological macromolecules, nanotechnology and other bio-engineered supporting components and structures to bio-computers, networks and the Internet, then an initial framework for a cognitive, perhaps even creative, biological Internet is possible. Electrode materials of low electrical impedance that facilitate interaction with the brain or a biological Internet are crucial if progress is to be made in a robust and dynamic internet. An Internet capable of learning , reasoning and having memory would be able to perform real world applications without being explicitly programmed. To a certain degree, the Internet would be autonomous. As in the human mind, an intelligent, parallel activated, disperse biological Internet would examine the information received by it, learn to identify and prioritize significant attributes of this information, and reason, from  instruction and experience, then give insight to these attributes in the information the Internet sends elsewhere.

Traditional study and construction of “neural networks” have revolved around complex networks of simple nodes (computing elements) aggregated in high density interconnections. The emphasis has been on “artificial nerve (neuronal) cells” and simulating nerve cell (neuronal) circuitry with the human brain. Today, the authors and others believe complex central nervous system cognitive functions (learning,  reasoning, planning, memory, etc) are not entirely explainable by densely interconnected pure neuronal activity and interactivity but rather, are the result of the contributions of many different types of densely interconnected and highly interactive functioning cells organized within the central nervous system in both anatomic tracts and physiologic systems.

In the human brain, there is a category of cells more numerous than neurons. There is estimated to be 100 billion neurons in the human brain and 10-50 times more supporting cells.  These cells are known as the glia of which there are two major subdivisions: astrocytes and oligodendroglia. Oligodendroglia elaborate and maintain the high resistance myelin insulation around the wiring (axons) emanating from neurons. The presence of myelin increases the velocity of conduction along axonal fibers. Astrocytes are especially prevalent in a compartment of the brain known to be one of the locations of billions of interconnected neurons and complex cerebral functions: the cerebral cortex. Astrocytes, in the human adult, are motile and morphologically densely interconnect with and probably physiologically participate in synaptic cerebral cortical integration of sensory information input (encoding), perception, learning, reasoning, memory, and retrieval of information and knowledge by dynamically interacting with adjacent groups of synapses in a theorized “astrocyte synaptic domain of influence” or "glial micro-domain".

Neuroembryologists suggest glia are actively involved in the morphogenesis of the embryonic central nervous system in Man by influencing the migration and localization of primitive neurons (neuroblasts) and directional growth of the efferent interneuronal wiring or connections (axons) within the central nervous system: in effect, astrocytes ( such as Cajal-Retzius cells) play a significant role in setting up the central nervous system network.

If true, neurotheoreticians who propose and design artificial biocomputers with “neural networks” likely need to broaden their discussions to include concepts of “neural-glial networks” to more properly reflect the anatomy and cellular biology of the human central nervous system. In other words, if one studies the neural basis of perception, learning, reasoning, and memory at the level of synapses, single neural cells and their interconnections and attempts to apply this knowledge to “artificial neural networks” capable of perception, learning, reasoning and memory scalable to the degree of the human mind, then one needs to study all the anatomic and physiologic relationships of neural and non-neural cellular interconnections, not just the “wiring” between the “artificial neurons”. This analytical approach likely infers that provisions may need to be made in future bio-computers and an intelligent biological Internet not only to have them comprised of artificial neural components with their interconnections but also, artificial glial supporting components with their interconnections or influences.

Stable and physiologically conducive intracellular and extracellular conditions of central nervous system anatomic structures and functional systems are fundamental to the ability of the mind to think and reason clearly, learn, encode and retrieve stored information (memory).  In human beings, “delirium” is an example of how the mind runs amok when there is a pathologic imbalance within the microenvironment of the central nervous system. Lack of glucose, cerebral blood flow, or oxygen result in rapid loss of consciousness in human beings.  Certainly, "being  fully alert and conscious" is a very energy dependent activity.  For biological networks and a biological Internet to continuously be  ready, willing and able to perceive and receive information, learn, clearly remember,  reason and respond appropriately to the demands placed upon it, then one must reach and maintain “homeostasis” for the biological components of these systems.

The three-dimensional structural integrity and efficient activities of macromolecules, biological membranes, etc. are very dependent upon temperature, ionic concentrations, and many other factors. If biological products are applied to artificial templates or chips, networks, the Internet, etc., then there must be provision to develop and maintain a suitable and stable (homeostatic) microenviroment in which these bio-computers or bio-network operate. If not, then the full potential of biologically enhanced computing will not be attained simply because these biological products will not be durable in a “hostile” microenvironment.

The maintenance of homeostasis in human beings is very complex and falls under the control of the hypothalamus which effects maintenance and corrective action to maintain the optimal micro-environment within the body through the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. Homeostatic systems in bio-computers and biological networks may eventually progress to having an “artificial hypothalamus” that maintains the proper conditions for bio-computers and bio-networks to reliably work. However, for the foreseeable future, human construction and maintenance of optimal microenvironments for these bio-computers and biologically enhanced networks will be required.

NeuroInternetics ™ is a term that leaves open the door for the design and the incorporation of additional bio-engineered components, including nanotechnology, into biological networks and a biological Internet. There is certainly more to true biocomputers and bio-networks than simply layering macromolecules on computer chip templates.  Can bio-engineers design an "active" intelligent Internet and bio-computers to have human capabilities such as:  being alert, awareness of "self",  awareness of what is expected of one's actions and behavior,  awareness of past, present and future, goal setting,  imagination, creating, adapting, and innovating, etc. since these capabilities play a large role in how humans think, reason, plan, decide, interact with and respond to a continuously changing World? Can an "active" Internet develop the very human capability of  "hunches, feelings or intuition" about solving problems, even on a "subconscious" level?  Biological enhancement of computers, networks and the Internet may help the World satisfy the enormous future demands of speed, minaturization, and intelligent handling of throughput by a continuously alert, aware, creative and cognitive Internet.

Internet Physician, Inc. and its affiliates provides information, products and services to companies, especially in the health care industry, and individuals who seek to incorporate in the Internet, now and in the future, into their operations or daily activities. For more information, please contact Internet Physician, Inc. at this email address: NeuroInternetics or call 308-530-3759.

Copyright© 1999-2014 Byron L. Barksdale   All rights reserved.