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.

Shocking your brain and making yourself smarter

tds

Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation – or tDCS – is the technique of applying electrodes to the skull and running a small but perceptible current through them. It’s not much current – usually on the order of 1 or 2 mA, but the effect of either increasing or decreasing neural activity has led to some interesting studies. [Theo] over on Instructables wrote a tutorial for making his own tDCS suppy that will supply 2 mA to electrodes placed on the skull for everyone to experiment with.

The basic idea behind tDCS is to put the positive electrode over the part of the brain to be excited or the negative electrode over the part of the brain to be inhibited. This is a well-studied technique that can be used to improve mathematical ability. It’s not electroshock therapy (although that is a valid treatment for depression and schizophrenia) in that a seizure is induced; tDCS just applies a small current to specific areas of the brain to excite or inhibit function.

[Theo]‘s device is a simple circuit made of a transistor, resistors, and a few diodes to provide about 2 mA to a pair of electrical contacts. With this circuit and a few gel electrode pads for your head, you too can experiment with direct current stimulation of your brain.

Of course we need to warn you about putting electricity into your head. In any event, here’s a quadcopter / stun gun mashup we made. Don’t do that, either. You might get a takedown request.

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.

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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...]

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