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Israeli boffins bring life to human neuron culture

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Israeli boffins may be on the road to building artificial, living human brains which can function without a body to support them. Honest.

According to an article in yesterday's Scientific American, Tel Aviv university researchers led by biophysicist Eshel ben-Jacob have manipulated cultured human brain cells so as to "imprint persisting multiple memories" on them.

The research was revealed in a paper published last month by the American Physical Society, titled "Towards [a] Neuro-memory-chip: Imprinting multiple memories in cultured neural networks" (abstract here).

Ben-Jacob and his fellow boffins apparently mounted their artificially-cultured brain tissue on "a polymer panel studded with electrodes." (Won't be long before they start using full-size brains in jars of bubbling transparent fluid, we reckon.) The scientists then injected the hapless culture with "picrotoxin, a cocktail of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)."

Apparently, "the cells on the electrode array came from the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain known for its role in memory formation," though it wasn't clear whose cortex or how they got the slime out of the donor's head.

Just for information, ben-Jacob's assistant is apparently called Itay Baruchi - not Igor.

The injection of picrotoxic gamma acid enabled the neurons, essentially, to start behaving persistently in an organised way - or to put it another way, BROUGHT A DEAD BRAIN TO LIFE.

Fortunately, the scientists had not installed their vat-grown cortex in a huge, powerful body assembled from corpse parts and thus it was unable to do anything. But there are hints that they plan in future to install artificial brains-in-jars in machinery of various kinds.

Scientific American reckons the synthetic brain tech "could be paired with computer hardware to create cyborglike machines." The science-magazine hacks played down the dangers, suggesting that the results might be useful for "such tasks as detecting dangerous toxins in the air, allowing the blind to see or helping someone who is paralyzed regain some if not all muscle use."

El Reg takes a more pessimistic view. The current killer-robot takeover in the US military is almost bound to draw in the Israeli bottled-brain tech, we submit, especially as US war-boffins are already brewing an unholy marriage of living flesh and machinery - albeit only a tiny one.

It can be only a matter of time until artificial brains in armoured plexiglass tanks - probably, for some obscure reason, harvested from condemned homicidal maniacs - are placed in control of droid gunships, "Reaper" aerial hunter-killers or crawling pint-sized cyber-assassins. There are other heavily-armed death machines entering Israeli service just now, as it happens.

We'll just have to hope that the good citizens of Tel Aviv come to their senses and get down to the university with pitchforks and flaming torches.

More from Scientific American here

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