Neurons in Bins Discovered to Play Pong

DAustralian scientists have demonstrated that it is possible to teach clusters of brain cells placed in a laboratory box to play the game Pong roughly. This is the first time these cells are able to perform goal-directed tasks, and this should pave the way for new insights into the brain.

The system, which the team calls “DishBrain,” is more or less exactly what it appears to be: 800,000 human and mouse neurons grown in culture and mounted on arrays of microelectrodes that can read their activity and stimulate them with electrical signals. In previous work, this type of setup has been used to study neurological development and disease, but this is the first time these lab-grown brains have been taught to perform a specific task.

GIF header: the “Dishbrain” in action. Microscopic image of neuronal cells in which fluorescent markers reveal different cell types. Green denotes neurons and axons, purple neurons, red dendrites and blue all cells. When multiple markers are present, the colors are blended and usually appear yellow or pink, depending on the proportion of markers. (Cortical Laboratories)

The team put the brain cells in a virtual recreation of the classic arcade game Pong, where the cells themselves acted like the racket and had to bounce a simulated ball in time. Electrodes on either side of the DishBrain emitted signals indicating the location of the ball at any given time, while the frequency of the signals increased or decreased to indicate the distance between the ball and the racket. Neurons had to send their signals to move the virtual racket and hit the ball.

Scanning electron microscope image of a culture of neurons grown for more than six months in a high-density multi-electrode array. Some neural cells grow on the periphery and have developed complex networks that cover electrodes in the center. (Cortical Laboratories)

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According with the doctor. Adeel Razi, co-author of the study:

This new ability to teach cell cultures to perform a sensitive task, controlling the racket to return the ball through sensing, opens up new possibilities of discovery that will have profound implications for technology, health and society.

DishBrain’s training was understandably tricky. Reward and punishment are often essential to training an organism to perform a specific task, but it won’t work in these cell cultures because they don’t have a dopamine system to induce them. Instead, the researchers took advantage of what’s known as the free energy principle.

Essentially, this idea holds that cells at this level are always trying to minimize the unpredictability of their environment. So if the brain cells couldn’t hit the ball with their racket, the system delivered an unpredictable stimulus to them for four seconds, but for every successful hit, they received a brief, predictable cue before play continued, too. predictably. Using this method, DishBrain learned to play the game in 5 minutes.

From the study: Representative film of a racket controlled by the activity of live neurons to play a simulated game of “Pong”. (Cortical Labs)

According to Professor Karl Friston, co-author of the study:

The innovative and magnificent aspect of this work consists in providing neurons with sensations, feedback and, above all, the ability to act on their world. Notably, cultures have learned to make their world more predictable by acting on it. It’s amazing why it’s impossible to teach this kind of self-organization, simply because, unlike a pet, these mini-brains have no sense of reward and punishment.

Graphical summary of the study. (Brett J. Kagan et al./Neuron)

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This experiment might seem a little strange and ethically questionable, but other scientists explain that it’s not a kind of intelligence we should be worried about being abused.

According to Professor Tara Spires-Jones, Program Manager at the UK Dementia Research Institute:

Don’t worry, while these neural plates can change your responses to stimulation, they’re not sci-fi style intelligence in a container, they’re simple circuit responses (albeit interesting and scientifically important.

Study researchers say this new work could help improve our understanding of the human brain, using a more accurate model than computer simulations. The next steps will be to study the effects of drugs and alcohol on neurons, including whether they alter the cells’ ability to play the game.

The study published in Neuron: In vitro neurons learn and exhibit sentience when embedded in a simulated game world and presented by Cortical Labs via Science In Public: Human brain cells on a plate learn to play Pong.

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