Scientists have taught a brain cell culture living in a laboratory dish to play the vintage table-tennis video game Pong.
It's the first demonstration that a collection of lab-grown brain cells can be taught to perform goal-directed tasks, the Australian researchers report.
They call the culture of 800,000 brain cells “DishBrain,” and they next plan to see how medicines and alcohol affect its Pong skills.
“DishBrain offers a simpler approach to test how the brain works, and gain insights into debilitating conditions such as epilepsy and dementia,” said Dr. Hon Weng Chong, chief executive officer of biotech start-up Cortical Labs.
DishBrain is based on mouse cells taken from embryonic brains and human brain cells derived from stem cells, the researchers said. The cells grew over the top of microelectrode arrays that could both stimulate them and read their activity.
The brain cells were taught Pong by using the electrodes to indicate where the ball and paddles are located during a round.
Feedback from the electrodes taught DishBrain how to whack the ball back and forth, by making the cells act as if they themselves were the paddle.
Electrodes on either the left or right side of one array would fire to indicate on which side of the screen the ball had bounced, while the frequency of the signals indicated the ball's distance from the paddle.
“This new capacity to teach cell cultures to perform a task in which they exhibit sentience — by controlling the paddle to return the ball via sensing — opens up new discovery possibilities which will have far-reaching consequences for technology, health and society,” said Adeel Razi, director of the Computational and Systems Neuroscience Laboratory at Monash University in Clayton, Australia.
“We know our brains have the evolutionary advantage of being tuned over hundreds of millions of years for survival,” he said. “Now, it seems we have in our grasp where we can harness this incredibly powerful and cheap biological intelligence.”
The team next will see how alcohol affects DishBrain's ability to play Pong, said lead researcher Brett Kagan, chief scientific officer of Cortical Labs.
“We're trying to create a dose-response curve with ethanol — basically get them ‘drunk' and see if they play the game more poorly, just as when people drink,” he said in a news release from Cortical Labs.
Building living brain models from basic structures will give researchers a chance to experiment using real brain function, Kagan said.
“In the past, models of the brain have been developed according to how computer scientists think the brain might work,” he said. “That is usually based on our current understanding of information technology, such as silicon computing. But in truth we don't really understand how the brain works.”
In fact, DishBrain performed much different from silicon-based systems, self-organizing its abilities by using the information presented to make its world more predictable, Kagan said.
“They changed their activity in a way that is very consistent with them actually behaving as a dynamic system,” he said. “For example, the neurons' ability to change and adapt their activity as a result of experience increases over time, consistent with what we see with the cells' learning rate.”
The findings were published online Oct. 12 in the journal Neuron.
The Dana Foundation has more about the cells of the brain.
SOURCE: Cortical Labs, news release, Oct. 12, 2022