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Researchers Share Plan for “Organoid Intelligence” and “Biocomputer”

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Johns Hopkins University researchers have shared their plan for “organoid intelligence.” The team is working to create a “biocomputer” powered by human brain cells, which they believe could exponentially expand the capabilities of modern computing and create novel fields of study.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Science.

The Rise of Biocomputing

Thomas Hartung is a professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Whiting School of Engineering. He is leading the project.

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

For almost two decades, researchers have been using tiny organoids, lab-grown tissue resembling fully grown organs, to experiment on kidneys, lungs, and other organs without resorting to human or animal testing. Hartung and colleagues at Johns Hopkins have been working more recently with brain organoids, orbs the size of a pen dot with neurons and other features that promise to sustain basic functions like learning and remembering.

“This opens up research on how the human brain works,” Hartung said. “Because you can start manipulating the system, doing things you cannot ethically do with human brains.”

Hartung began to grow and assemble brain cells into functional organoids in 2012 using cells from human skin samples reprogrammed into an embryonic stem cell-like state. Each organoid contains about 50,000 cells, about the size of a fruit fly's nervous system. He now envisions building a futuristic computer with such brain organoids.

Magnified image of a brain organoid produced in Thomas Hartung’s lab, dyed to show neurons in magenta, cell nuclei in blue, and other supporting cells in red and green. Image: Jesse Plotkin/Johns Hopkins University

Building a Futuristic Computer With Brain Organoids

According to Hartung, computers that run on this “biological hardware” could begin to alleviate energy-consumption demands of supercomputing that are becoming increasingly unsustainable. Even though computers process calculations involving numbers and data faster than humans, brains are much smarter in making complex logical decisions, like telling a dog from a cat.

“It might take decades before we achieve the goal of something comparable to any type of computer,” Hartung said. “But if we don't start creating funding programs for this, it will be much more difficult.”

Organoid intelligence could also revolutionize drug testing research for neurodevelopmental disorders and neurodegeneration.

Lena Smirnova is a Johns Hopkins assistant professor of environmental health and engineering who co-leads the investigations.

“We want to compare brain organoids from typically developed donors versus brain organoids from donors with autism,” Lena said. “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.”

To assess the ethical implications of working with organoid intelligence, a diverse consortium of scientists, bioethicists, and members of the public have been embedded within the team.

Alex McFarland is an AI journalist and writer exploring the latest developments in artificial intelligence. He has collaborated with numerous AI startups and publications worldwide.