Scientists grow a brain-like network in the lab

Scientists mix up the perfect brain cells in the lab and see spurts of activity, which could one day be used to treat stroke patients.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Scientists grew rat neurons on a computer chip, after some time, the cells started to show signs of life. It's not really a functioning brain, but it does have bursts of neural activity that warrant further investigation. University of Florida researchers think that the brain-on-a-chip experiment could one day be used to stimulate areas of the brain that suffered brain damage from a stroke.

So scientists wanted to see if their method could restore neural pathways. UF professor Thomas DeMarse told Discovery news, that he took regular neurons from an embryonic rat brain, put cells in a dish, and then simulated the effects of a stroke on those cells. Then he mixed in adult stem cells that were tagged with green dye, so he could keep track of the original set of cells and watch how they interacted with each other. The cells were left to grow.

Within 30 days, the cells began to show signs of brain activity. As the neurons begin communicating with each other, a microelectrode array recorded hundreds of neural activity. The scientists saw levels of activity only seen in a developing mammalian brain.

In an earlier experiment in 2004, the UF professor created a living brain of cultured rat cells and showed that it could control a plane. However, this is the first time stem cells had been added to the mix. Growing neurons this way could open up treatments for stroke and other brain conditions. The experiment is still a work in progress though.

But what the UF researchers created is far from a working brain. Just because signs of neural activity occur, doesn't mean the scientists are close to building an intelligent system.

Artificial brains have long been a central theme in science fiction. Assuming humans are eventually capable of building a synthetic brain, a University of Southern California researcher recently explained to me that a key attribute of a working artificial brain is its ability to demonstrate learning and intelligence. The devices should be able to adapt over time and be smart enough to handle unexpected circumstances. In the future, the applications of a synthetic brain include facial recognitions, vision for autonomous vehicles, robotic rescue missions and treatment for brain trauma.

Brain in a Dish Comes Alive [Discovery News]

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