They were first produced in 2013 and have since been used in brain development research. The expectation is that this could be used to test treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.
Researchers developed brain cells in the lab that learned to play the video game Pong. They say your “mini-brain” is capable of sensing its environment and reacting to it.
In an article in the journal Neuron, Brett Kagan, from Cortical Labs, claims to have created the first “sensitive” brain grown in a laboratory.
Other experts describe the work as “exciting” but say that calling brain cells sentient is going too far.
Sentience, a word widely used in debates on animal ethics, concerns the ability to experience something and develop specific feelings from an experience.
But Kagan says, “We couldn’t find a better term to describe it.”
“It is able to receive information from an external source, process it and respond in real time.”
Mini-brains were first produced in 2013 to study microcephaly, a genetic disorder in which the organ is born too small, and have since been used for research on brain development.
But this is the first time they are connected to an external environment and react to it, in this case a video game. In Pong, the objective is to move a bar on the screen to prevent the ball from passing.
The research team grew human brain cells from stem cells and mouse embryos to form a collection of 800,000.
This mini-brain was connected to the video game through electrodes that indicated which side the ball was on and how far from the bar used to hit it.
In response, the cells produced electrical activity of their own and expended less energy as the game progressed.
But when the ball passed and play resumed with the ball at a random spot, they spent more energy recalibrating themselves to a new, unpredictable situation.
The mini-brain learned to play in five minutes. He often missed the ball, but his success rate was well above chance.
Although, because it lacks awareness, the mini-brain doesn’t know it’s playing Pong in the same way a human player does, the researchers emphasize.
What is it for?
Kagan hopes the technology could be used to test treatments for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“When people look at fabrics [humanos] in a laboratory, they are seeing whether there is activity or not. But the purpose of brain cells is to process information in real time,” he says. “Assessing their true function could be useful for many other areas of research.”
Next, Kagan plans to test the impact alcohol has on the mini-brain’s ability to play Pong.
If it reacts similarly to a human brain, it would demonstrate how effective it can be as a substitute.
Kagan’s description of his sentient system, however, differs from many dictionary definitions, which state that it means having the ability to have feelings and sensations.
Dean Burnett, a researcher at Cardiff Psychology School in the UK, prefers the term “thought system”.
“There’s information being received and clearly being used, causing change, so the stimulus they’re receiving is being ‘thought out’ in a basic way,” he says.
Mini-brains are likely to become more complex as the research progresses, but Kagan’s team is working with bioethicists to ensure they don’t accidentally create a conscious brain, with all the ethical questions that could arise from that.
“We have to look at this new technology as something very similar to the computer industry when the first transistors were poorly made prototypes, not very reliable, but after years of research, it led to technological wonders all over the world,” he says.
Artificial intelligence researchers have already produced devices that can beat grandmasters at chess.
But Karl Friston of University College London in the UK, who is working with Kagan, said: “The mini-brain has learned without being taught and is therefore more adaptable and flexible.”
– This text was published in https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/geral-63153180