Dishes Full of Brain Cells Teach Themselves to Play Pong

'When they are in the game, they believe they are the paddle'
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 14, 2022 1:15 PM CDT

Scientists at Cortical Labs call dishes full of brain cells "cyborg brains"—and they've learned to play the computer game Pong with surprising speed. The mini-brains, some of them grown from human stem cells and others from cells of mouse embryos, got the hang of a simplified version of the game in around five minutes, researchers say in a study published in the journal Neuron. The brain cells were grown on top of a silicon chip linked to a computer that could detect and send electrical signals, NPR reports. Study author Brett Kagan, chief scientific officer at Cortical Labs, says signals told the cells where the ball was and how far it was from the paddle—and when they managed to hit it with the paddle, they were "rewarded" with predictable stimulation, something brain cells like a lot more than the unpredictable "white noise" signals that happened when they missed.

Activity in different regions of the mini-brains moved the paddle, and they had to adopt "distinct firing patterns through self-organization," researchers say. The mini-brains, which Cortical Labs calls "DishBrains," are nowhere near as good at Pong as people or computer-based AIs, but they learned the game much faster than AIs. Kagan tells New Scientist that the mini-brains reached the same point after 10 to 15 rallies that it took AIs 5,000 rallies to achieve. "We often refer to them as living in the Matrix," Kagan says. "When they are in the game, they believe they are the paddle." The researchers say DishBrains made from human cells are better at the game than those made from mouse cells. Other labs are also experimenting with dishes full of brain cells, but Kagan says this is the first time one has been shown to perform goal-directed tasks.

The mini-brains consist of 800,000 to 1 million brain cells, around as many as are in a cockroach brain. "If you could see a cockroach playing a game of Pong and it was able to hit the ball twice as often as it was missing it, you would be pretty impressed with that cockroach," Kagan says. He says the experiment was part of efforts to determine how brain cells learn so quickly, and the team's long-term goal is to create "cyborg brains" that could be more intelligent—and more adaptable—than computers. Kagan says the technology could someday be used to test treatments for diseases like Alzheimer's, the BBC reports. He says the team's next step will be to investigate how alcohol affects the mini-brains' Pong performance. (More neurology stories.)

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