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Researchers discover material that “remembers” like brain

An accidental discovery shows vanadium dioxide (VO2), a compound used in electronics, capable of “remembering” its entire history of previous external stimuli, similarly to the brain.

Mohammad Samizadeh Nikoo, a Ph.D. student at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, has made the chance discovery while estimating the time it takes for VO2 to transition from one state to another for his thesis.

Hundreds of measurements later, he found himself on a different path after observing a “memory effect” in the material’s structure. Samizadeh Nikoo experimented with electric currents to make the VO2 heat up and change state.

He found that the time it took for the material to change state directly depended on currents that pulsed through it before.

“The VO2 seemed to ‘remember’ the first phase transition and anticipate the next,” professor Elison Matioli, the head of the lab where experiments took place, said in a statement.

Matioli added: “We didn’t expect to see this kind of memory effect, and it has nothing to do with electronic states but rather with the physical structure of the material. It’s a novel discovery: no other material behaves this way.”

Further research by a larger scientific group, published by Nature, showed VO2 switches acting like neurons in the brain. The material could remember the most recent external stimulus for up to three hours.

“The memory effect could, in fact, persist for several days, but we don’t currently have the instruments needed to measure that,” Matioli noted.

Continuous and structural memory sets it apart from conventional materials and could eventually lead to greater capacity, speed, and miniaturization in electronics. VO2 is the first physical material discovered to possess this quality – but there could be others, researchers say.

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