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Petri Dish Mini-Brains Play "Pong"

Scientists have taught a collection of brain cells (human or rodent) in a petri dish to play “Pong” video game.

Researchers at the biotechnology startup Cortical Labs have created “mini-brains“ consisting of 800,000 to one million living brain cells in a petri dish, New Scientist reports. The cells are placed on top of a microelectrode array that analyzes the neural activity.

Their preprint is available here.

Integrating neurons into digital systems to leverage their innate intelligence may enable performance infeasible with silicon alone, along with providing insight into the cellular origin of intelligence. Researchers developed DishBrain, a system which exhibits natural intelligence by harnessing the inherent adaptive computation of neurons in a structured environment. In vitro neural networks from human or rodent origins, are integrated with in silico computing via high-density multielectrode array. Through electrophysiological stimulation and recording, cultures were embedded in a simulated game-world, mimicking the arcade game ‘Pong’.

Applying a previously untestable theory of active inference via the Free Energy Principle, researchers found that learning was apparent within five minutes of real-time gameplay, not observed in control conditions. Further experiments demonstrate the importance of closed-loop structured feedback in eliciting learning over time. Cultures display the ability to self-organise in a goal-directed manner in response to sparse sensory information about the consequences of their actions.

 DishBrain system and experimental protocol schematic
DishBrain system and experimental protocol schematic. Neuronal cultures derived from either human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) via Dual SMAD inhibition, NGN2 lentivirus directed differentiation, or primary cortical cells from E15.5 mouse embryos, were plated onto HD-MEA chips and embedded in a stimulated game-world of ‘pong’ via the DishBrain system. Different DishBrain environments were utilised to demonstrate: (1&2) low latency closed-loop feedback system (stimulation (STIM) & silent (SIL) treatment); (3) No feedback (NF) system to demonstrate an open-loop feedback configuration; and (4) rest (RST) configuration to demonstrate a system in which sensory information (yellow bolt) is absent. An interactive visualiser with gameplay is available at

“We think it’s fair to call them cyborg brains,” Brett Kagan, chief scientific officer at Cortical Labs and research lead of the project, told New Scientist.

To teach the mini-brains the game, the team created a simplified version of “Pong” with no opponent. A signal is sent to either the right or left of the array to indicate where the ball is, and the neurons from the brain cells send signals back to move the paddle.

“We often refer to them as living in the Matrix,” Kagan told the magazine, in a reference to the 1999 movie. “When they are in the game, they believe they are the paddle.”

Kagan said that while the mini-brains can’t play the game as well as a human, they do learn faster than some AIs.

“The amazing aspect is how quickly it learns, in five minutes, in real time,” he told New Scientist. “That’s really an amazing thing that biology can do.”

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