#SfN13: Day 4

Probably the coolest thing I've seen so far at SfN 2013 is the exhibit by Backyard Brains. They're a company that makes neuroscience tools for educators and DIY neuroscientists. I could play with their stuff all day, and the crowd that was gathered around their booth showed that I wasn't alone. Here are a couple of the tools they were demonstrating at their booth:


I want one. They call it the "World's First Cyborg Kit." Basically, they sell a kit so you can stick a chip on the back of a cockroach and control him with your iPhone. The chip on the back has a small battery and communicates with an app on your iPhone via bluetooth low energy. I am not very familiar with cockroaches, but here's how it works: apparently cockroach antennae have neurons running down them that are used to sense walls or other objects. By gluing the chip to the back of the cockroach and gluing wires along the antennae, you can trick the cockroach into thinking there's a wall each time you stimulate an antenna. For example, if you tap on the "Go Right" side of the app, it stimulates the left antenna. The cockroach thinks there's a wall to the left and goes right.

The surgery takes about 30 minutes to perform, and in case you were worried about the cockroach feeling pain (if they even can...), you drop him in some ice water first. They're cold blooded, so ice water slows down their metabolism and acts as anesthesia.

The roach becomes habituated to the stimulus after about five minutes of constant driving (which Backyard Brains spins as being a good thing, as it accomplishes their mission of being a neuroscience education tool). After a while of not stimulating or by stimulating the two antennae randomly (for example, they found that the electrical patterns used for playing music were sufficiently random), the habituation will presumably go away.

Price: $100 for everything needed to use your chip on three different cockroaches (the chip is reusable, but a new set of electrodes is needed for each cockroach) and the app. You can buy replacement electrodes on their website.

The Completo

Backyard Brains also sells a kit, called The Completo, with an adapter to turn your cell phone camera into a microscope, an amplifier (called SpikerBox), and a micro-manipulator, all of which folds up into a small toolbox. Your phone acts as both the microscope and the oscilloscope.

Using one of the SpikerBoxes, they can stimulate a detached cockroach leg with a music wave and cause it to flex to the beat of the music. I saw a demonstration of this at their booth this morning. It really works!

There are probably a million other experiments one could do with these tools, and I have no doubt it would inspire many kids and kids-at-heart to learn more about neuroscience.

All of their hardware and software are open, meaning other people can write apps for different or more complicated stimulation protocols, which I am also excited about. It never occurred to me that you could do such cool science with relatively inexpensive, simple tools.

What an exciting company!

So stop what your doing. Right now. Go to https://backyardbrains.com/. Prepare to be dazzled.

2013-11-12 16.03.44-1

Posted November 13th, 2013 in Career, Neuroscience, Science.