Scientists from biotech startup Cortical Labs have claimed they created a “mini-brain” capable of carrying out goal-oriented tasks, the BBC reports.
The researchers published their findings in the Neuron journal, where they wrote it was the first “sentient” lab-grown brain in a dish.
“We could find no better term to describe the device,” researcher Dr Brett Kagan told the BBC.
“It is able to take in information from an external source, process it and then respond to it in real-time.”
Others have objected to the use of the word as sentience is often taken to include the ability to experience sensations and feelings.
However, in modern philosophy, sentience is usually reserved for sensation only, and other words are used to refer to consciousness and the ability to experience emotions.
To carry out the experiment, the team grew 800,000 human brain cells from stem cells and cells from mouse embryos in a culture dubbed “Dishbrain”.
The collection was then connected to a version of the Pong video game via electrodes, which sent signals to the neurons indicating where the paddle and ball were positioned.
Signals from the neurons then moved the paddle up and down.
Whenever the ball passed the paddle, the Dishbrain would receive a short, random pulse.
When the ball hit the paddle, a strong and consistent feedback signal would be sent as a form of stimulation.
According to the researchers, Dishbrain learnt it was supposed to stop the ball from passing the paddle within five minutes of real-time gameplay. After 20 minutes, it had gotten better with playing.
Although it still missed the ball in some cases, the scientists argued its improvements over time indicated that the cells were reorganising and developing networks to adapt.
“They changed their activity in a way that is very consistent with them actually behaving as a dynamic system,” Kagan said.
“For example, the neurons’ ability to change and adapt their activity as a result of experience increases over time, consistent with what we see with the cells’ learning rate.”
In future, the researchers want to intoxicate Dishbrain with alcohol and medicine to see how this would affect its ability to play Pong.
However, the ultimate goal is to see whether the mini-brain can be used to test treatment for brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The BBC noted the first mini-brains were produced in 2013 and were initially used to study a genetic disorder called microcephaly, where the brain is too small.