The "brain" -- a collection of 25,000 living neurons, or nerve cells, taken from a rat's brain and cultured inside a glass dish -- gives scientists a unique real-time window into the brain at the cellular level. By watching the brain cells interact, scientists hope to understand what causes neural disorders such as epilepsy and to determine noninvasive ways to intervene. As living computers, they may someday be used to fly small unmanned airplanes or handle tasks that are dangerous for humans, such as search-and-rescue missions or bomb damage assessments.
"We're interested in studying how brains compute," said Thomas DeMarse, the UF professor of biomedical engineering who designed the study. "If you think about your brain, and learning and the memory process, I can ask you questions about when you were 5 years old and you can retrieve information. That's a tremendous capacity for memory. In fact, you perform fairly simple tasks that you would think a computer would easily be able to accomplish, but in fact it can't."
While computers are very fast at processing some kinds of information, they can't approach the flexibility of the human brain, DeMarse said. In particular, brains can easily make certain kinds of computations such as recognizing an unfamiliar piece of furniture as a table or a lamp that are very difficult to program into today's computers.
"If we can extract the rules of how these neural networks are doing computations like pattern recognition, we can apply that to create novel computing systems," he said.
DeMarse experimental "brain" interacts with an F-22 fighter jet flight simulator through a specially designed plate called a multi-electrode array and a common desktop computer.