Scientists taught brain cells to play legendary ‘Pong’ game

Scientists taught brain cells to play legendary ‘Pong’ game

Brain cells now know the irresistible lure of the classic arcade game “Pong.” A peer-reviewed study in Neuron from Australian biotech company Cortical Labs show how neurons are not only capable of playing a version of the table tennis game, but that they can adapt and get better the longer they play.

The study’s authors set up a game-like simulation by putting human stem cells and mouse embryonic cells in a dish equipped to capture and stimulate the cells’ electric activity. Scientists then simulated a Pong-like environment in the dish, aptly called “DishBrain,” by delivering inputs to electrodes to mimic the presence of a Pong ball. In real-time they recorded how cells, acting as paddles in this scenario, responded. This was then translated into whether or not the cells, “intercepted” the ball.

Throughout the 486 games played, scientists discovered that the more Pong the cells played, the better they got. Both human and mouse cell cultures missed the initial serve less and achieved longer rallies over time. We know that cells are capable of using feedback to learn and adapt because, well, animal life wouldn’t exist otherwise. But this marks the first time that scientists were able to harness this ability “for a goal-directed behavior,” the study read.

A visualization of DishBrain, which created the Pong-like environment.
Credit: Cortical Labs

Creating an environment that controls the sentience and self-organizing capabilities of cells, effectively means we can simulate intelligence. “This is the new way to think about what a neuron is,” Dr. Brett Kagan, the study’s lead author and chief scientific officer of Cortical Labs told the Guardian. The cells’ historic Pong game has big potential. It could provide valuable insight into the study of neurological diseases like epilepsy and dementia. Generally speaking, it represents a “sandbox” for testing the effects of drugs and genetic variants with “exactly the same computing (neuronal) elements found in your brain and mine,” said Karl Friston, co-author and theoretical neuroscientist at University College London in the announcement.

Naturally, the next step in this research is to add booze. For the cells, that is. “We’re trying to create a dose response curve with ethanol – basically get them ‘drunk’ and see if they play the game more poorly, just as when people drink,” said Kagan.

If you’ve ever played Pong, or any other arcade game drunk, you might be able to predict the results. We are, after all, governed by these Pong-playing neurons.

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Cecily Mauran

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