A group of researchers in the United States believe that computers powered by human brain cells could shape the future, and they have a plan to get there.
Organoids are lab-grown tissues that resemble organs. Brain organoids don’t resemble tiny versions of the human brain, but the pen-dot-size cell cultures contain neurons that are capable of brainlike functions, forming a multitude of connections. Scientists call the phenomenon “intelligence in a dish”. These “biocomputers” would employ networks of brain organoids to potentially revolutionize pharmaceutical testing for diseases like Alzheimer’s, provide insight into the human brain and change the future of computing.
Dr. Thomas Hartung with brain organoids Image Credit
The gap between artificial intelligence and the human brain is why humans can use an image or text-based CAPTCHA as an online security measure to prove they aren’t bots. The Turing test was developed in 1950 to assess how machines display intelligent behavior similar to that of a human. A supercomputer can crunch massive amounts of numbers faster than a human can. On the other hand, a human brain is more energy efficient as well as better at learning and making complex logical decisions. Something as basic as being able to tell one animal from another is a task the human brain easily does that a computer cannot. The human brain still remains unmatched by modern computers.
Dr. Thomas Hartung, a professor of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Whiting School of Engineering in Baltimore, began growing brain organoids by altering human skin samples in 2012. He and his colleagues envision combining the power of brain organoids into a type of biological hardware more energy efficient than supercomputers. Research describing the plan for organoid intelligence laid out by Hartung and his colleagues was published in the journal Frontiers in Science.
Stem cell pioneers John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka received a Nobel Prize in 2012 for developing a technique that allowed cells to be generated from fully developed tissues like skin. The groundbreaking research allowed scientists like Hartung to develop brain organoids that were used to mimic living brains and test and identify medicines that may pose risks to brain health. Hartung defines organoid intelligence as “reproducing cognitive functions, such as learning and sensory processing, in a lab-grown human-brain model.”
A brain organoid produced in Hartung’s lab. The image shows neurons in magenta, cell nuclei in blue and other supporting cells in red and green. Image Credit
Hartung recalled that he was asked by other researchers whether brain organoids could think or achieve consciousness. The question spurred him to consider feeding information to organoids about their environment and how to interact with it. “This opens up research on how the human brain works,” said Hartung, who is also the codirector of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing in Europe. “Because you can start manipulating the system, doing things you cannot ethically do with human brains.”
The research done by Hartung and his team could lead to new and exciting developments in the fields of artificial intelligence and pharmaceutical testing. This kind of innovation could bring us closer to understanding the intricacies of the human brain and bring us one step closer to a future where brain-powered computers help to tackle some of the world’s most pressing issues.