By Kayla Ngai
On October 12, 2022, Neuron published an article about neurons learning how to play the 1970s arcade game “Pong.” Dr. Brett Kagan from Cortical labs writes about how his team (consisting of aid from several universities) has grown the first “‘sentient’ lab-grown brain in a dish.” However, there is much discourse on whether this development is welcomed.
Kagan believes that the research could evolve healthcare, proving beneficial in treating neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzhiemer’s, epilepsy, and dementia. However, others argue that science is going too far.
Even vaccinations backed with research still face severe push-back from some communities. However, the benefits of this research and the implications of helping individuals with incurable diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, greatly outweigh the limited potential drawbacks. I think that the implications of helping people outweigh most of the worries as Alzheimer’s is an uncurable disease.
Although “mini-brains” were created as early as 2013, for a microcephaly study, they have never “interacted with an external environment” until now. Scientists grew these neurons from human brain cells and mouse embryos to create over 800,000 cells. Kagan describes this phenomenon, stating how “[the neurons] are able to take in information from an external source, process it and then respond to it in real time.” Their ability to respond in real-time is noteworthy because it shows their promise in possibly advancing healthcare.
Furthermore, Kagan describes how Pong was utilized over all other games because of its simplistic nature where two players hit a ball back and forth with paddles. Additionally, Kagan writes that “Tapping into their true function unlocks so many more research areas that can be explored in a comprehensive way.” The scientists connected these cells to electrodes, called “DishBrain” which sensed cell activity), revealing “which side the ball was on and how far from the paddle.” As a result, these cells developed their own electrical activity and did not expend as much energy as in the beginning in the span of five minutes. They played 486 games and were tested with different stimuli (some neurons were given feedback or information). Unsurprisingly, the mini-brains with feedback “learned from it” and were more successful without being taught.
Overall, the neurons did not do well at playing Pong, but evidence demonstrates that their successes were above random chance. Yet, the scientists stressed that the cells do not understand that they are playing a game “with no sense of reward or punishment.” However, the researchers are determined to keep working with the neurons. They want to test how the cells react to different medications and whilst drunk as they continue to play Pong. This is important because they need to imitate human activities to further conclude if these cells are fit for helping people with neurodegenerative diseases. The team also plans for the mini-brains to create “biological processing units.”
Although the progress may seem slow, the research demonstrates remarkable results that could revolutionize healthcare, especially in the neuroscience department. The scientists are also balancing their desires for progress with their ethos, ensuring that these research projects do not lead to the creation of a fully functional brain- which would raise bioethical concerns.
These mini-brains are becoming more complex. Despite some opposition, I believe that with the many potential benefits of this research, and the bioethical morals scientists are following, this research is worthwhile. It will help people with neurogenerative diseases and allow scientists to learn more about how brain processes function. This study is already a breakthrough in science, but as scientists keep moving forward, I have no doubt there will be more extraordinary things to come!