A group of scientists has grown brain cells in a lab. And they learned to play the 1970s tennis-like video game, Pong. How? Because these lab-grown “mini-brain” cells can sense and respond to their environment.
The science and other stuff to know
According to a study published in the Neuron journal, scientists at Cortical Labs harvested around 800,000 neurons from embryonic mouse brains and adult human stem cells. The team then grew these neurons inside a petri dish, dubbing them “DishBrain.” To understand the learning capabilities of the brain, they made DishBrain play Pong.
If you weren’t around then, this is a basic electronic Ping-Pong game that was very popular in the 70s.
Scientists first produced mini-brains in 2013 to study microcephaly, a genetic disorder where the brain is too small, and have since been used for research into brain development. But this is the first time they have been plugged into, and interacted with, an external environment — in this case, a video game.
To make the brain play Pong, researchers first linked the cells with a computer. They then used electrodes to send signals to indicate the ball’s position. Gradually, the brains learned to sense the position of the game’s electronic ball and control a virtual paddle. The stimulation was predictable (same location and frequency) in case of a win and random when it missed the ball. Over time, the brain cells modified their behavior to win.
Admittedly, the brain cells never got that good at Pong. But interestingly, human brain cells seemed to achieve a slightly higher level of play than mouse brain cells.
Brain cells learning to play Pong demonstrates “intelligent and sentient behavior,” neuroscientists argue in the study. The team says their findings open the door to a new type of research in which neurons could one day be used as biological information processors, complementing digital computers. The study could also have future implications in disease modeling and drug discovery.
In addition, the researchers say in the study that a synthetic biological intelligence, “previously confined to the realm of science fiction”, could now be within reach. “From worms to flies to humans, neurons are the starting block for generalized intelligence,” said Brett Kagan, an author of the study and chief scientific officer at Cortical Labs in Melbourne, Australia. “So, the question was, can we interact with neurons in a way to harness that inherent intelligence?”
In the longer term, Kagan believes the research could “form the backbone of a new type of information processor,” to be used in areas like robotics, where processing information is critical.
After experimenting with a video game, these scientists are now planning to study how these brain cells respond to drugs and alcohol.
This isn’t the first time researchers have used Pong to study brain capabilities. Just last year, Neuralink, the implant company owned by SpaceX released a video in which a monkey appears to play Pong using only its mind.