Scientist builds a ‘living brain’

Wednesday, October 27th, 2004

Tom Spears

“I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate object… but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”

— Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

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OTTAWA — A Florida professor has built living brain cells into a “brain in a dish” that’s able to control an aircraft simulator — but also raises questions about whether he has created a living, and even conscious, brain.

Thomas DeMarse of the University of Florida took some neurons (brain cells) from a live rat, then made them multiply into a mass of 25,000.

The neurons have formed connections with each other, just like brains in living animals.

And with 60 electrodes to send computer signals in and brain signals out, the biomedical engineer says his “living brain” has learned to keep a simulated aircraft stable in varying weather conditions.

Hey, says a Canadian professor of horror literature: That’s what Dr. Frankenstein did!

“In a way it is Frankenstinian because he’s essentially creating another life form. It’s not really a rat,” says Laurie Harnick, who teaches American literature and horror films at the University of Western Ontario.

“The cells have, if not consciousness, some sort of mechanism to make something happen” in the flight simulator.

However, DeMarse says the goal isn’t to build living brains.

“We’re interested in studying how brains compute,” he says in a written summary of his work. (He couldn’t be reached for an interview this week.)

DeMarse says computers made of metal and silicon have never mastered the flexibility we have in living brains. He wants to apply the skills of our brains to computers.

For instance, he says, a human can see an unfamiliar object and understand right away that it’s a table or a chair — something very difficult to program into a computer.

The experimental brain “is essentially a dish with 60 electrodes arranged in a grid at the bottom. Over that we put the living cortical neurons from rats, which rapidly begin to reconnect themselves, forming a living neural network — a brain,” The connections didn’t happen randomly, he added.

“You see one [neuron] extend a process, pull it back, extend it out, and it may do that a couple of times, just sampling who’s next to it, until over time the connectivity starts to establish itself.”

Further, he says that his “brain in a dish” gradually built new neural connections after he hooked up the electrodes to an airplane simulator. At first it just let the aircraft drift randomly. Now he claims it stabilizes the flight in virtual weather conditions.

“I suppose in a way he’s creating a new organism, with roots in something we do recognize,” said Harnick.

The Florida biomedical engineer and his partner have a $500,000 US research grant from the National Science Foundation.


How scientists are using rat brain cells to fly a model airplane:

Network is hooked to a computer.

Neurons analyse and process data.

Some 25,000 rat neurons are grown in culture over an array of 60 electrodes, creating a neural network.

Model airplane equipped with onboard camera feeds visual information about simulator-created horizon into the neural network.

In an attempt to keep the plan stable and level, neurons send signals back to plane’s control surfaces.

Source: Vancouver Sun

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

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