for National Geographic News
Scientists have grown a living "brain" that sits inside a petri dish and can fly a simulated F-22 fighter aircraft.
The brainchild of Thomas DeMarse, a biomedical engineer at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the "brain in a dish" is a collection of 25,000 neurons taken from the brain of a rat that are connected to a computer via 60 electrodes.
The experiment is an opportunity to study how brain cells function as a network and to learn more about one of the most complex devices in the known universe: the human brain.
By watching the brain cells interact, scientists hope to understand what causes neural disorders, such as epilepsy. The research may also help the researchers in their quest to build "living" computers that combine neural and silicon systems.
"We're hoping to find out exactly how the neurons do what they do and extract those rules and apply them in software or hardware for novel types of computing," DeMarse said.
When the neurons from a rat are put in a dish (filled with a specialized liquid to keep the neurons alive), they resemble grains of sand sprinkled in water. But the cells rapidly begin to connect with each other, forming a living neural network.
"I have a movie of the first eight hours [of this process], and you can literally watch the neurons extend connections to other neurons as they form their network," DeMarse said.
The 25,000 cells sit atop a grid of 60 electrodes, which is just one and a half millimeters (six-hundredths of an inch) wide.
"These electrodes allow us to literally listen to the 'conversations' among the neurons to find out how they are computing," DeMarse said. "By sending in [electronic] pulses to each electrode, we can also stimulate the network in 60 different locations."
To put the experimental brain to the test, the scientist has connected it to a jet flight simulator via the electrode grid and a desktop computer.
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