The neurological journal Neuron has published a study detailing a video that displays 800,000 living human brain cells learning to play a video game while trapped in a Petri dish. While it wasn’t a complex video game, the brain cells were taught to play Pong, and researchers watched interactions between the cells to better understand how the human brain functions. Pong has been used as a video game platform for research in the past.


Brian Kagan, chief scientific officer of biotech startup Cortical Labs, was quoted as saying, “We have shown we can interact with living biological neurons in such a way that compels them to modify their activity.” This is the first time scientists have observed something that qualifies as intelligence outside of viewing complete living beings. To observe the interaction between cells while learning, researchers chose to use Pong. The retro video game Pong was actually trending on Twitter just two years ago, and remains popular for its simplicity and use as a learning tool.

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The experiment offers new insights into how to study and understand the way the mind works. Previously researchers were forced to use either animal testing, or computer models. This breakthrough may eliminate the need for either, and the flexibility of games could simulate brain cell interaction during a variety of circumstances. For instance, some games let you play as a journalist, while others simulate various aspects of daily life.

Kagan’s study used both mouse and human brain cells, derived from either stem cells or embryotic mouse tissue. Brain cells were grown atop microelectrode arrays which both stimulated the brain cells and recorded their activity. Once researchers knew the cells were alive, they began teaching them how to play Pong, and were shocked when the cells began successfully passing the ball back and forth. Elon Musk’s Neuralink made news when a monkey was able to play Pong using its mind, which proved the electrical interactions in the brain can effect an external electrical device. Kagan went on to say, “We’ve never before been able to see how the cells act in a virtual environment. We managed to build a closed-loop environment that can read what’s happening in the cells, stimulate them with meaningful information and then change the cells in an interactive way, so they can actually alter each other.”

Scientists nicknamed the collection of cells Dishbrain, and electrical feedback taught Dishbrain how to volley the ball back and forth by allowing the cells to essentially become a paddle via electrical interaction. Scientists have often assumed one could interact with human brain cells via electrical communication, but have never before observed and effected the interaction directly. It took Elon Musk’s Neuralink some time to teach a monkey to play Pong with its mind, so the findings uncovered by Cortical Labs could move this type of technology forward much faster. Researchers with Cortical Labs hope to teach Dishbrain to play Pong while intoxicated, letting them deeply observe the actions of brain cells while inebriated.

While DIshbrain is in its infancy, the research may prove to have a huge potential for a variety of applications, ranging from new technologies to treatment of human related medical conditions. Or perhaps just allowing gamers to play video games without a controller.

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