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.


23 thoughts on “Learning Neuroscience With Cockroach Legs

  1. Well, I am now pretty certain neuroscience isn’t my thing. At least not if you have to hack bits off creatures. If this demonstration used the likes EEG/ECG then I may have viewed it differently…

    1. So respectfully you don’t kill potential injurious disease carry vermin that find a way into your living quarters? Yes I know that’s taking it to the extreme, but I’m responding to the extreme. While the insect will be inconvenienced for a time, it was anesthetized, and the leg will grow back, according to the TED speaker. There is no way of knowing how many creatures, even humans have suffered and even died in the process of creating life saving treatment you and I or some we care about may have have received. On the leg growing back, it appears that an adult cockroach that looses a leg had lost it for good.

      1. Funny how no one complains when an exterminator goes through a commercial kitchen and kills 50,000 cockroaches at once, but if you pluck the leg off of one individual roach in an effort to engage and educate young minds it’s somehow an abomination…

      2. Removing a hazard for human health is one thing. If it was part of Entomophagy and you’re basically playing with your food before you eat it then I don’t have a problem with that.

        Just randomly dissecting living creatures because it is dramatic, when you could have shown the same point without lopping off a limb has to be a little messed up.

    2. I’m really hoping that he put the donor cockroach back in the cage — it kinda looked like he left it sitting on the table. I just know that it got up and crawled off at some point during the demo…

  2. Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh

    I was trying to do this exact same thing as a part of my 11th grade (I think) science project. I was trying to see if electrically evoked action potentials were influence by iron content in the diet and 60Hz magnetic fields. Unfortunately I never got the equipment working, but I certainly “enjoyed” staying up until 3am chasing my escaped test subjects around the basement.

    …then several years into collage I just happened to pick up a 4 channel evoked potential / EMG / EEGish machine at a yard sale (complete with schematic diagrams…at a yard sale!). I took it out a couple weeks ago to do a simple EKG for my wife, have started refurbishing it, and JUST this afternoon told my wife about removing cockroach legs in high school (followed by fervent explanations of leg regeneration and anesthetization). Then “bam,” there was HackADay (actually I said “Hey, come look at this, you have to see this, oh my gosh, oh my gosh…”).

    Anyway, I’m now expecting to regress back to high school so I can finish my project. Thanks for posting this and thanks to the presenters for all the work!

    I do appreciate the opportunity to make an “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh” post.

  3. I’d be interested in what signals caused predictable changes in the leg. I was playing with a freq genorator once, wired it up to my finger and did a freq sweep. My primary conclusion was that, to get proper results, you need to be able to varry duty. (I was only able to varry amplitude, dc offset and freq)
    Cool. Please be humane and step on the roach before removing its leg.
    ah, but you want ME as your test subject? ok… just… put…away… the boot….

  4. I have a Russian immigrant friend in the US who is a phd in neuro science. He says most R&D in this field is hidden and/or patented, mostly by governments and their contractors, and the only progressing research in the field is in defense contracts..

    There are trivial means to do cooler things than this, but students and independents will never see it.. like controlling an insect.

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