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Boffins grow human brain cells to play Pong

Now let’s see what happens when we get it drunk, say researchers

Researchers have succeeded in growing brain cells in a lab and hooking them up to electronic connectors proving they can learn to play the seminal console game Pong.

Led by Brett Kagan, chief scientific officer at Cortical Labs, the researchers showed that by integrating neurons into digital systems they could harness "the inherent adaptive computation of neurons in a structured environment”.

According to the paper published in the journal Neuron, the biological neural networks grown from human or rodent origins were integrated with computing hardware via a high-density multielectrode array.

“Through electrophysiological stimulation and recording, cultures are embedded in a simulated game-world, mimicking the arcade game Pong.

"Applying implications from the theory of active inference via the free energy principle, we find apparent learning within five minutes of real-time gameplay not observed in control conditions,” the paper said. “Further experiments demonstrate the importance of closed-loop structured feedback in eliciting learning over time.”

Pong was one of the first commercial computer games. Loosely based on two-dimensional table tennis, players are asked to bat a square pixel “ball” from one side of the screen to another. The Atari game was first released in 1972.

The experimenters grew human brain cells grown from stem cells, as well as mouse embryos, to a collection of 800,000 individual cells. Electrical connectors fed data describing which side the pong ball was on and how far it was from the paddle. The cells produced electrical activity of their own, learning to play the game based on feedback, per the paper.

Kagan told the BBC he hoped the research could help test treatments for neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's.

"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."

Kagan next plans to get the dish-based puddle of neurons drunk on booze to find out if it might work as an experimental stand-in, he told the BBC.

During the same interview, he said he could not find a better term than “sentient” to describe the device, leading The Register to suspect he had already begun experimenting with alcohol before the media call. ®

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