Yes, researchers have grown a responsive brain in a dish. Dubbed Dish Brain, scientists have shown how their recently crafted neural network can play a simple game of Pong, a video game similar to the table game of Ping Pong. Dish Brain plays in an appropriate and predictable way, showing the amalgamation has the ability to learn.
What Comprises Dish Brain?
Using 800,000 embryonic mouse cells mixed with human neurons culled from stem cells, the brain was placed on top of an electrode array. This array was then hooked up to Pong and using electrical pulses, alerted the neurons of the ball’s position. The array manipulated the paddle based on signals sent by the neurons. When the paddle connected with the ball, Dish Brain was sent unvarying feedback via a stimulus; a short pulse indicated a miss.
Initially, the signals made no sense to the cells and they had no understanding of the game. But through the positive feedback of electrical stimulation, the cells began responding. Dr. Brett Kagan, lead author of a paper on the research that was published in Neuron states, “If they hit the ball, we gave them something predictable. When they missed it, they got something that was totally unpredictable.”
The principle of Free Energy states that the brain wants predictable stimuli over unpredictable stimuli. It seeks order. The cells in Dish Brain processed the game well enough to learn to create rhythms of electrical activity by moving the paddle correctly. The rallies eventually increased.
While researchers do not believe the culture sophisticated enough to hold any type of consciousness, the important feature displayed by Dish Brain is its ability to learn. In under half an hour, the culture’s skill in playing Pong improved; this illustrates that the cells were developing networks and reorganizing. It also indicates that the cells are capable of having a goal and behaving in a way that fulfills that goal.
“It is able to take in information from an external source, process it and then respond to it in real time,” Dr. Brett Kagan.
Where Will This Go?
So what does this all mean? Aside from the possible spawn of apocalyptic science fiction stories, Dish Brain opens ideas that propel growth at the intersection of biology and computers. Not only will Dish Brain and its inevitable future counterparts help researchers understand more fully brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, it will also aid in increasing the intelligence of computers.
The concept of a computer having some living elements is becoming closer to a reality. While the learning aspect is still very primitive, a partially living model that can respond in real time will be a crucial asset to the study of interactions within the human nervous system.