$100 Device Lets Home Scientists Experiment with Brain Science
Curious kids and adults have long been able to buy telescopes, microscopes, chemistry kits and guides to stars, plants and birds. But the science of the brain has been historically less reachable for amateur enthusiasts. For one thing, equipment that measures the spikes of electrical activity in the brain usually costs thousands of dollars. So in 2010, newly minted University of Michigan neuroscientists Timothy Marzullo and Greg Gage started selling a $100 device, called the SpikerBox, that lets users see and hear the neural activity of a snipped-off insect leg. "We came up with this idea that if we could record a spike for less than $100, we could change how the neuroscience is done," Gage said. Now, using Kickstarter funding, they've published a paper in the journal PLoS ONE that describes how the SpikerBox has fared in classrooms.
Marzullo and Gage found that according to pre- and post-tests collected from two classes of high-schoolers, their demonstrations with SpikerBoxes taught students some core concepts in neuroscience and electronics. The students had the most difficulty with understanding synapses, the gaps between brain cells over which the cells communicate with each other.
SpikerBox's makers also gathered suggestions for improvements from teachers and students, and published instructions and teacher's guides for four experiments people can conduct using a SpikerBox. All the experiments are available for free, as PLoS ONE papers are free to anybody. "We wanted to make it openly available so high school teachers could have it," Gage told InnovationNewsDaily.
To use the SpikerBox, students get a cockroach (pet stores sell them), dunk it in ice water to anesthetize it, then snip off a leg. Users push SpikerBox's electrode pins into the leg, which touches the electrodes to cells in the legs that are responsible for carrying information from the leg into the brain. SpikerBox will amplify the crackling sounds of the leg's neurons at work.
If users poke the touch-sensitive hairs on the leg, the neural activity will spike, demonstrating how those cells respond to touch and send a message about touch to the insect's brain. If users hook up the SpikerBox to their laptop or to a smartphone or tablet with the SpikerBox's app, they can see the waveforms of the leg's electric activity. The new PLoS ONE paper describes further experiments people can do, including checking the leg's response to nicotine.
For those concerned about the cockroach's well-being after it's been subject to neuroscience, Marzullo and Gage say in their paper that young cockroaches can re-grow legs. They are still testing to see how often this happens.
The duo founded a company, Backyard Brains, dedicated to at-home neuroscience kits. People can order a SpikerBox from the Backyard Brains website. The company's newest products include a circuit that users can install in a cockroach to manipulate whether it goes right or left. "That's a tool to investigate how to communicate with the brain using electricity," Gage said. "We're able to drive a cockroach around, a living cockroach, by putting signals into its antenna."
Gage and his co-workers are also developing a micromanipulator to help users more precisely aim their SpikerBox electrodes. They had difficulty building a sturdy manipulator until they hit on using a 3D printer from MakerBot to create the parts, which reduced the number of parts in the device from 21 to five.
For a visual demonstration of the SpikerBox at work, watch this frenzied video by Backyard Brains: