An electronic nano memory cell that mimics the way the human brain processes information has been developed, surpassing an important milestone towards creating a bionic brain.

Researchers from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in Australia, who published their findings in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, built a multi-state memory cell that has similar functionality to memristors (memory resistors). This means the nano memory cell is capable of storing and processing strands of information at the same time.

The device takes the form of an ultra-thin film that is 10,000 times thinner than the width of a human hair. In contrast to digital storage devices like USBs, the nano memory cell mimics the analogue nature of the human brain by storing information in multiple states.

What is a memristor?

Memristors are a fourth class of electronic circuitry, alongside resistors, capacitors and inductors. Only confirmed to exist in 2008, memristors behave in a similar way to the synapses of neurons within the human brain.

The resistance to current within a memristor is a product of currents that have previously flowed through it, meaning current flows easier the more a current flows through. Due to these properties, memristors hold potential for non-volatile memory and can make computers better at understanding speech, images and the world around them.

"This is the closest we have come to creating a brain-like system with memory that learns and stores analogue information and is quick at retrieving this stored information," said project leader Sharath Sriram.

"The human brain is an extremely complex analogue computer. Its evolution is based on its previous experiences, and up until now this functionality has not been able to be adequately reproduced with digital technology."

Imitating electronic aspects of the human brain could have important implications for research into neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

"The development of these nano memory cells is a prerequisite for building these artificial neuron networks that are capable of matching the performance and functionality of their biological counterparts," said RMIT researcher Hussein Nili.

"Think of an old camera, which could only take pictures in black and white, the same analogy applies here. Rather than just black and white memories, we now have memories in full colour with shade, light and texture, it is a major step.

"If you could replicate a brain outside the body, it would minimise ethical issues involved in treating and experimenting on the brain, which can lead to better understanding of neurological conditions."