Researchers from Melbourne-based start-up Cortical Labs have grown human brain cells that learnt to play pong in just 5 minutes
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The objective of this video game, which has a table tennis motif, is to hit a ball by moving a paddle vertically across the screen.
And today, even lab-grown human brain cells have mastered the game of Pong.
For the first time, researchers from Melbourne-based start-up Cortical Labs have demonstrated that 800,000 brain cells are capable of carrying out goal-directed tasks, in this case, playing Pong.
According to the research, brain cells in a petri dish can also have inherent intelligence and can change their behaviour over time.
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“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 Dr Adeel Razi, an author of the study.
“We know our brains have the evolutionary advantage of being tuned over hundreds of millions of years for survival.
“Now, it seems we have in our grasp where we can harness this incredibly powerful and cheap biological intelligence.”
Scientists have previously been able to grow brain cells in the lab and read their activity.
However, it has not yet been possible to stimulate the cells in a methodical and significant manner.
The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Brett Kagan, stated: “IIn the past, models of the brain have been developed according to how computer scientists think the brain might work.
“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 the latest research, the scientists produced 800,000 neurons in a dish, or “DishBrain,” using mouse embryonic brain cells as well as some human brain cells.
The neurons were wired such that they could receive feedback from the computer about whether or not their paddle was striking the ball.
DishBrain received information on the side of the ball through the firing of electrodes on the left or right of one array, and distance from the paddle was determined by the frequency of signals.
The researchers observed the activity of the neuron and its reactions to this feedback using electric sensors that captured “spikes”.
The more a neuron moved its paddle and struck the ball, the stronger the spikes became.
When neurons missed the ball, a software algorithm analysed their play strategy.
This demonstrates how neurons can change their activity in real time in a goal-oriented manner in response to a changing environment.
“Remarkably, the cultures learned how to make their world more predictable by acting upon it,” said co-author of the study and theoretical neuroscientist Professor Karl Friston of University College London.
“This is remarkable because you cannot teach this kind of self-organisation; simply because — unlike a pet — these mini brains have no sense of reward and punishment.”
Pong wasn’t the only game the team tested.
“You know when the Google Chrome browser crashes and you get that dinosaur that you can make jump over obstacles (Project Bolan),” said Dr Kagan.
“We’ve done that and we’ve seen some nice preliminary results, but we still have more work to do building new environments for custom purposes.”
The team will now try to see what happens when DishBrain is affected by medicines and alcohol.
“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,” said Dr Kagan.
In the future, the researchers hope the findings could pave the way for treatments for neurodegenerative conditions.
“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 Cortical Labs.