Brain Cells Grown in Lab Have Learned to Play a Video Game in 5 Minutes

The "mini-brain" created by the researchers can sense and respond to its environment.

Australian researchers say they've grown brain cells in a lab that have learned to play the vintage video game Pong. What's more, the "mini-brain" created by scientists took a surprisingly short amount of time to understand the game and begin to improve. How is this possible, and what might it mean for the future of artificial intelligence? Read on to find out. 

1
Is This The First Sentient Artificial Brain?

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BBC News reported that the "mini-brain" created by the researchers can sense and respond to its environment. In the journal Neuron, Dr. Brett Kagan says his team has created the first "sentient" brain grown in a lab. "We could find no better term to describe the device," said Kagan. "It is able to take in information from an external source, process it and then respond to it in real time."

Introduced in 1972, Pong was the first home video game. Two players bat a ball back and forth, like in a tennis match. The simplicity of the game led the scientists to choose it for this experiment. 

2
What Is a Mini-Brain

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Mini-brains were first produced in 2013, to study microcephaly, a genetic disorder where the brain is abnormally small. The video game experiment is the first time they've been connected to and interacted with an external environment, BBC reports.

In the experiment, researchers grew human brain cells from stem cells and mouse embryos into a mini-brain consisting of 800,000 cells. They connected the mini-brain to Pong via electrodes that indicated which side the ball was on and how far from the paddle it was. Upon "viewing" the video game, the cells produced electrical activity, said the scientists, who gave the cells feedback on whether they were hitting the ball or not.

3
Learned Pong In Five Minutes

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The mini-brain learned to play the game in five minutes, the researchers said. It frequently missed the ball, but its connection rate was higher than random chance. (The scientists pointed out that because the mini-brain had no consciousness, it didn't know it was playing a video game, as a human would.)

4
Mini-Brain Continued to Learn and Improve

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Over time, the mini-brain was less likely to miss a shot and was able to engage in longer and longer rallies. The cells played 486 matches, with researchers testing their reaction to stimuli or the absence of it. In some games, the cells were given feedback, so they would know how their behavior affected the environment. In other games, they were given no feedback. The cells that were given feedback learned from it.

5
Hope Is To Aid Dementia Research

A lab technician looks at samples through a microscope
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The researchers will next test the cells' reaction to alcohol. Kagan said he hopes the research will one day aid the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. "When people look at tissues in a dish, at the moment they are seeing if there is activity or no activity. But the purpose of brain cells is to process information in real time," he said. "Tapping into their true function unlocks so many more research areas that can be explored in a comprehensive way."

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor. Read more
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