Brain cells living in a dish can learn to play the classic video game Pong, thus demonstrating “intelligent and sentient behavior,” Australian neuroscientists argue in a new paper.

Brett Kagan, who led the study published Wednesday in the journal Neuron, told AFP his findings open the door to a new type of research in which neurons could one day be used as biological information processors, complementing digital computers.

“What machines can’t do is learn things very quickly — if you need a machine learning algorithm to learn something, it requires thousands of data samples,” he explained. “But if you ask a human, or train a dog, a dog can learn a trick in two or three tries.”


Neurons are the building blocks of intelligence in all animals, from flies to humans. Kagan, the chief scientific officer at Melbourne-based Cortical labs, set out to answer the question of whether there is a way to harness neurons’ inherent intelligence.

DishBrain, a product of the Australian biotech company Cortical Labs, is a platform that can teach living neurons to perform tasks by stimulating them with electrophysiological signals, then reading the resulting activity in the cells. In new work published today (October 12) in Neuron, researchers showed that cultures of mouse or human neurons were capable of learning to play the classic 1972 Atari video game Pong after about five minutes.

“I would say it is accurate to call this a form of learning because it is goal-directed activity adaptation that spans minutes,” Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Yasmín Escobedo Lozoya, who didn’t work on the study, tells The Scientist over email.

According to Cortical Labs Chief Scientific Officer Brett Kagan, this is ample evidence that cultured networks of neurons provided with stimulation and feedback are capable of learning—and that they’re “sentient,” he tells The Scientist.

With further refinements, he says, DishBrain could be used to probe the mechanisms of intelligence, study the effects of pharmaceuticals on neurons, or develop better AI based on a synthesis of biological and engineered components.

“Can this be a new way of thinking about what neurons are?” asks Kagan. “Are they just part of human and animal biology? Or can they be a new biomaterial for intelligence? . . . Why try and mimic what you can harness?”


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