Backyard Brains: Controlling Cockroaches, Fruit Flys, And People

[Greg Gage] and some of the other crew at Backyard Brains have done a TED talk, had a few successful Kickstarters, and most surprisingly given that pedigree, are actually doing something interesting, fun, and educational. They’re bringing neuroscience to everyone with a series of projects and kits that mutilate cockroaches and send PETA into a tizzy.

[Greg] demonstrated some of his highly modified cockroaches by putting a small Bluetooth backpack on one. The roach had previously been ‘prepared’ by attaching small electrodes to each of its two front antennas. The backpack sends a small electrical signal to the antennae every time I swiped the screen of an iPhone. The roach thinks it’s hitting a wall and turns in the direction I’m swiping, turning it into a roboroach. We seen something like this before but it never gets old.

Far from being your one stop shop for cockroach torture devices, Backyard Brains also has a fairly impressive lab in the basement of their building filled with grad students and genetically modified organisms. [Cort Thompson] is working with fruit flies genetically modified so a neuron will activate when they’re exposed to a specific pulse of light. It’s called optogenetics, and [Cort] has a few of these guys who have an ‘I’m tasting something sweet’ neuron activated when exposed to a pulse of red light.

Of course controlling cockroaches is one thing, and genetically engineering fruit flies is a little more impressive. How about controlling other people? After being hooked up to an EMG box to turn muscle actuation in my arm into static on a speaker, [Greg] asked for a volunteer. [Jason Kridner], the guy behind the BeagleBone, was tagging along with us, and stepped up to have two electrodes attached to his ulnar nerve. With a little bit of circuitry that is available in the Backyard Brains store, I was able to control [Jason]‘s wrist with my mind. Extraordinarily cool stuff.

There was far too much awesome stuff at Backyard Brains for a video of reasonable length. Not shown includes projects with scorpions, and an improved version of the roboroach that gives a roach a little bit of encouragement to move forward. We’ll put up a ‘cutting room floor’ video of that a bit later.

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