Researchers share plan for ‘organoid intelligence’ and ‘biocomputer’

Johns Hopkins University researchers have shared their plan for “organoid intelligence.” The team is working on developing a ‘biocomputer’ powered by human brain cells, which they believe could exponentially expand the capabilities of modern computers and create new areas of study.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Science.

The rise of biocomputing

Thomas Hartung is Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Whiting School of Engineering. He leads the project.

“Computing and artificial intelligence have fueled the technological revolution, but they’re reaching a ceiling,” Hartung said. “Biocomputing is a tremendous attempt to condense computing power and increase its efficiency to push our current technological frontiers.”

For nearly two decades, researchers have used tiny organoids, lab-grown tissues that resemble adult organs, to experiment on kidneys, lungs, and other organs without resorting to human or animal testing. More recently, Hartung and colleagues at Johns Hopkins have been working with brain organoids, pen-sized spheres containing neurons and other features that promise to maintain basic functions like learning and memory.

“This opens up the exploration of how the human brain works,” said Hartung. “Because you can start manipulating the system and doing things that you can’t ethically do with human brains.”

Hartung began growing brain cells and assembling them into functional organoids in 2012, using cells from human skin samples that were 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. Now he imagines building a futuristic computer with such brain organoids.

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

Build a futuristic computer with brain organoids

According to Hartung, computers running on this “biological hardware” could begin to mitigate the increasingly unsustainable power consumption demands of supercomputing. Although computers process calculations involving numbers and dates faster than humans, brains are much smarter at making complex logical decisions, such as distinguishing a dog from a cat.

“It could be decades before we reach the goal of something comparable to any type of computer,” Hartung said. “But if we don’t start creating funding programs for it, 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 is co-leading the research.

“We want to compare brain organoids from donors with typical development to brain organoids from donors with autism,” said Lena. “The tools we are developing towards Biological Computing are the same tools that will allow us to understand changes in neural networks that are specific to autism without having to use animals or access patients, so we can base the Understand the mechanisms underlying why patients have these perception problems and impairments.”

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