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Future computers may be powered by brain cells

A biocomputer powered by human brain cells, known as “organoid intelligence,” could be developed within our lifetime. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University expect such technology to expand the capabilities of computing and create new fields of study.

“Computing and artificial intelligence have been driving the technology revolution but they are reaching a ceiling,” said Thomas Hartung. “Biocomputing is an enormous effort of compacting computational power and increasing its efficiency to push past our current technological limits.”

For nearly two decades, scientists have used tiny organoids (lab-grown tissues that resemble organs) to run experiments without human or animal testing. 

Recently, researchers have been using brain organoids with neurons and other features that sustain functions like learning and remembering. Experimenting with brain organoids creates vast opportunities for research on how the brain works, and allows scientists to do a wide array of testing that cannot ethically be done to human brains. 

In 2012, Hartung grew and assembled brain cells into functional organoids using cells from human skin samples. Each organoid contains about 50,000 cells, which is comparable to the size of a fruit fly’s nervous system. 

Now, Hartung envisions utilizing brain organoids  as “biological hardware” to build a futuristic computer. This technology could help alleviate the high energy-consumption demands of supercomputing that are becoming unsustainable. 

While computers can process calculations involving numbers and data faster than humans, the human brain is still unmatched due to its unique ability to make complex logical decisions.

Hartung expects it will still take decades before organoid intelligence can power a system as smart as a mouse. He does, however, foresee a future where biocomputers support superior computing speed, processing power, data efficiency, and storage capabilities. This would require program funding,  increased production of brain organoids as well as training them with artificial intelligence. 

Organoid intelligence could also revolutionize drug testing research for neurodevelopmental disorders and neurodegeneration, said Lena Smirnova who co-leads the investigations.

“We want to compare brain organoids from typically developed donors versus brain organoids from donors with autism,” said Smirnova. “The tools we are developing towards biological computing are the same tools that will allow us to understand changes in neuronal networks specific for autism, without having to use animals or to access patients, so we can understand the underlying mechanisms of why patients have these cognition issues and impairments.”

In the meantime, the ethical implications of working with organoid intelligence will be assessed by scientists, bioethicists, and members of the public who have been embedded within the team.

The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Science.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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