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.

Controlling a cockroach leg with your mind

If one hack that controls amputated cockroach legs this week wasn’t enough for you, we’ve got another.

Earlier this week we saw two neuroscientists at Backyard Brains put on a show at a TED talk by connecting an amputated cockroach leg (don’t worry, they grow back) to a $100 electronic device called the SpikerBox. The SpikerBox allows students to explore the world of axons and action potentials by listening in on the electronic signals generated by the hair on the legs of a cockroach. For the finale for their TED talk, the SpikerBox guys attached an MP3 player to the cockroach leg, causing the now dead appendage to dance a little jig.

This new build – the Salt Shaker from Thinker Thing again allows students to amputate cockroach legs, pin them down with electrodes, and cause muscle contractions with the sound of science. Thinker Thing took this one step further than the neuroscientists at Backyard Brains; now you can control a cockroach leg with your mind.

The folks at Thinker Thing are using an off the shelf EEG system from Emotiv to capture the alpha, beta, and delta brainwaves of their new human test subjects. By interpreting these brain signals, they can convert these small variations in cerebral electrical activity to sound files. From there, it’s simply a matter of plugging in the Salt Shaker and moving a cockroach leg with your mind.

In the video after the break you can check out the folks at Thinker Thing playing around with their Salt Shaker and controlling a cockroach leg with a team member’s mind.

[Read more...]

Learning neuroscience with cockroach legs

Neuroscientists [Tim Marzullo] and [Greg Gage] wanted a way to get kids interested in neuroscience. What they came up with isn’t terribly far from something found in Frankenstein’s lab; by amputating a cockroach’s leg and attaching electrodes, they’re able to listen to the sound of neurons firing. For an even cooler demonstration, they’re able to apply a little bit of current to the leg and make the leg dance to the beat of the Beastie Boys.

The guys published an article in PLOS One and gave a TED talk demonstrating their SpikerBox, as they call their invention, to the masses. The basic idea is to amplify the electricity generated by cockroach neurons firing. By listening in on the neurons with an iPad app, [Tim] and [Greg] can set the threshold of the recording to detect the action potential of an individual neuron, and listen in on exactly what happens when a single neuron fires.

It seems like a great tool to explain the very basics of what a nervous system – and a brain, both cockroach and human – actually is. In the video after the break, you can see [Greg] playing around with individual cockroach neurons. After that, [Greg] plays the Beastie’s High Plains Drifter into the leg making the muscles contract. Truly, The Sounds of Science.

[Read more...]

Mind-controlling cockroaches

Producing micro robotics is not yet easy or cost-effective, but why do we need to when we can just control the minds of cockroaches? A team or researchers from North Carolina State University is calling this augmented Madagascar Hissing cockroach an Insect Biobot in their latest research paper (PDF). It’s not the first time the subject has come up. There have already been proofs in research and even more amateur endeavors. But the accuracy and control seen in the video after the break is beyond compare.

The roach is being controlled to perfectly follow a line on the floor. One of the things that makes this iteration work so well is that the microcontroller includes a new type of ADC-based feedback loop for the stimulation of the insect brain. This helps to ensure that the roach will not grow accustom to the stimulation and stop responding to it. Since this variety of insect can live for about two years, this breakthrough makes it into a reusable tool. We’re not sure what that tool will be used for, but perhaps the next plague of insects will be controlled by man, and not mother nature.

[Read more...]

Cockroach pimps a sweet ride

This giant Madagascar hissing cockroach rides proudly atop his three-wheeled robotic platform. This project from several years ago is new to us and our reaction to the video after the break is mixed. We find ourselves creeped out, delighted, amazed, and saddened.

The cockroach controlled robot uses a trackball type input. A ping-pong ball is spun by a cockroach perched on top. The lucky or tortured (depending on how you look at it) little bug has an array of lights in front of it that illuminate when obstacles are in front of the robot. The roach’s natural aversion to light should make it move its legs away from that part of the display, thereby moving the robot away from the obstruction.

We’ve seen some bio-hacking in the past. There were robots that run off of rat brain cells and remote controlled beetles. But none of these projects make us want to get into this type of experimentation. How about you?

[Read more...]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 93,978 other followers