An array of rat brain cells has successfully flown a virtual F-22 fighter jet. The cells could one day become a more sophisticated replacement for the computers that control uncrewed aerial vehicles or, in the nearer future, form a test-bed for drugs against brain diseases such as epilepsy.

Enzymes were used to extract neurons from the motor cortex of mature rat embryos and cells were then seeded onto a grid of gold electrodes patterned on a glass Petri dish. The cells grew microscopic interconnections, turning them into a “live computation device”, explains Thomas DeMarse, a biomedical engineer at the University of Florida in Gainesville, US, who carried out the research.

“This is novel work,” says Mandayam Srinivasan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who used electrodes implanted in a monkey’s brain to move a robotic arm. He says that in future living systems could be combined with traditional computers to solve problems more efficiently.

“There are certainly things that biological systems can accomplish that we haven’t been able to do with electronics,” he says. For example animals have no problem recognising different textures or telling the difference between two different pieces of furniture, whereas computers find this very difficult.

This is probably because the way neurons process information and interconnect is much more complex than in modern electronics, says Srinivasan. Billions of neurons – rather than the millions of transistors on a computer chip – make a biological system “fail safe”, he adds.

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