Scientists raised a 'mini-brain' from the laboratory: he was able to play a video game - ForumDaily
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Scientists have grown from the laboratory 'minibrain': he was able to play a video game

Researchers have grown brain cells in the lab and taught them how to play the 1970s video game Pong. with the BBC.

Photo: IStock

They say their "mini-brain" can sense and respond to the environment.

Dr. Brett Kagan of Cortical Labs, in an article in the journal Neuron, claims to have created the first “smart brain” grown in a laboratory.

Other experts call the work fascinating, but say calling brain cells smart is a bit too much.

“We couldn't find a better term to describe the device,” says Dr. Kagan. “It is able to receive information from an external source, process it and respond to it in real time.”

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Minibrains were first created in 2013 to study microcephaly, a genetic disorder in which the brain is too small, and have since been used to study brain development.

But now, for the first time, they were interacting with the environment—in this case, a video game.

The researchers did the following:

  • They grew 800 human brain cells from stem cells and some from mouse embryos.
  • They connected this “mini-brain” to a video game using electrodes that showed which side the ball was on and how far away.

In response, the cells produced their own electrical activity. During the game, they spent less energy.

But when the ball went past the platform and the game started again, with the ball at a random point, they expended more energy to adjust to the new unpredictable situation. “Minibrain” learned to play in five minutes.

He often missed the ball, but his successes were much higher than a random result. Although, having no consciousness, he does not realize that he is playing pong - the way a human player does, the researchers emphasize.

Beer pong?

Dr. Kagan hopes this technology could eventually be used to test treatments for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Dr. Kagan next plans to test the effects of alcohol on the minibrain's ability to play pong. If it reacts in the same way as the human brain, it will highlight how effective this system is as an experimental substitute.

However, what Dr. Kagan calls his system is sentient differs from many definitions that say it means the ability to experience feelings and sensations.

Honorary Research Fellow at the Cardiff School of Psychology, Dr Dean Burnett, prefers the term 'system of thought'.

“Information is communicated and clearly used to drive change, so the stimulus she receives is something she thinks about,” he says.

The minibrains are likely to become more complex as the research progresses, but Dr. Kagan's team is working with bioethicists to ensure they don't accidentally create a conscious brain - with all the moral questions that might arise.

“We should think of this new technology like the nascent computer industry, when the first transistors were poor prototypes, not very reliable, but after years of focused research they led to huge technological wonders around the world,” he says.

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AI researchers have already created devices that can beat grandmasters.

But Professor Karl Friston, from University College London, working with Dr Kagan, said: "The minibrain learned when no one taught it, so it is more adaptive and flexible."

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