The brain is complex, but extremely fascinating. We need more people interested in studying the brain because 20% of the world will have a neurological disorder… and there are no cures! To study the brain, you typically have to be a graduate student at a major university. Not any more! Backyard Brains enables everyone to be a neuroscientist! We provide affordable neuroscience experiment kits for students of all ages to learn (hands-on) about electrophysiology. Now everyone from schoolchildren to grad students and every grade in between can experiment with similar tools used by real neuroscientists worldwide! By following a few simple steps, everyone can experience first-hand how the brain communicates with our senses, memories, hopes, and desires.
Gage hopes that affordable DIY kits will bring neuroscience to the public and help spread basic understanding of the brain. “If someone wants to learn about the brain, they typically have no choice but to go to graduate school,” Gage said. “This isn’t the case in other areas of science. You can study the planets or stars with a cheap telescope, but most importantly, you don’t have to get a PhD in astrophysics.“
Gage himself started out as an electrical engineer working on circuit boards for a touchscreen kiosk company. A chance encounter kindled Gage’s love for neuroscience and changed his life. It was when visiting a lab at Leiden University in the Netherlands “when I heard a neuron for the first time,” Gage said.
Neurons signal by generating electrical impulses known as action potentials or “spikes,” which are turned to sound on recording devices for monitoring neuronal activity. Gage heard a live recording of these spikes from a rat motor cortex, the part of the brain that involved in controlling movements.
“I heard a distinct popping sound every time the rat would move its right paw,” Gage recalled. “I was mesmerized. I knew at that moment I wanted to be a neuroscientist.“
“Later I would find out that I was not alone,” Gage added. “Many neuroscientists claim hearing spikes was a deciding factor.“
Gage quit his job and went back to grad school at the University of Michigan. “Everyone told me I was crazy to leave my well-paid and comfortable job,” Gage said.
Given his delayed start at becoming a scientist, Gage did not want anyone else missing their calling, so while in grad school, he visited schools with his labmate Tim Marzullo to help explain scientific careers to students. They often wanted to show real spikes to kids, but they could not risk bringing their expensive lab equipment to school visits. Instead, they came up with a way to use off-the-shelf electronics to bring simple neuroscience experiments outside the lab.
“We set about building what we called the $100 spike,” Gage said. “Could we build neuroscience equipment rugged enough that students could use it, and cheap enough that schools could afford it?“
Their flagship product, the SpikerBox, is a DIY kit to detect spikes in crickets, earthworms and other invertebrates found in a pet store. The device debuted at the Society for Neuroscience conference a few years ago and kick started Gage and Marzullo’s careers at Backyard Brains.
Since then, Gage and his colleagues have developed other kits for experiments involving the nervous system. One is the RoboRoach, which they tout as the world’s first commercially available cyborg. By sticking a pack of electronics onto a cockroach’s back and attaching silver electrodes to its antennas, you can use send commands to the insect over Bluetooth, wirelessly controlling the movements the roach’s movements by electrically stimulating their antennas.
“If you see a cockroach walking and you touch its antenna, it will turn in the other direction. That’s called a wall-following behavior. With the RoboRoach kit, we are talking to the same neurons using small pulses of electricity, making the cockroach think it is touching something.“
Taking the idea of remote-controlling a roach one step further, Gage and his colleagues then developed the Human-Human Interface, a simple kit that helps you control someone else’s arm by moving your own arm. One side of the device picks up electrical activity of muscles as you flex your arm and the other side stimulates a nerve in the arm of another person and makes him flex his arm too.
Gage hopes such devices in the future can provide amateurs with all they need to conduct experiments at their homes and come up with their own discoveries. Such breakthroughs are already happening in mathematics and astronomy, “but not in neuroscience,” Gage said. “Our goal is to be able to change that. We want real discoveries to happen in the home, using our gear.“