Wiring Insects for Hands-On Science Experiments

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While there's technology that removes science students from their physical specimens, like the applications that offer alternatives to frog dissection, another company is using tech to connect them to dismembered bugs.

Far from the virtual world, It's all hands-on work with Backyard Brains. Insects lose their legs and their antenna. And for budding young researchers and scientists, the touch and feel is just part of the process.

Backyard Brains sells several affordable, entry-level brain recording kits that let students (of all ages) learn about and experiment with the nervous system. The SpikerBox ($99), for example, lets you connect neural probes to a cockroach's leg and send electrical impulses in order to record its neural activity. Another product just released this week, the RoboRoach ($99), lets you stimulate a cockroach's antenna nerves electronically, allowing the student to steer the insect left or right.

Okay, perhaps even without the advent of virtual app alternatives to experimentation, the idea of removing legs and antenna from insects and connecting neural stimulators to them gives you pause. But as co-founder Greg Gage stresses, "we don't kill insects." The company also says it prefers to "not be in the insect business." (It can point you to online cockroach suppliers. That's a whole other story.) What it does supply are the kits, the circuit boards, the electrodes and the curriculum.

That curriculum is an interesting blend of both biology (the neuroscience) and engineering (the circuitry), which provides opportunities for "collaboration across the curriculum and across classes." Gage says that some of the schools that have used the kits, one class will assemble the circuit boards while another will conduct the research.


And in response to criticism of insect experimentation, Backyard Brains teaches about ethics as part of its curriculum. As Gage points out, you can actually perform all these experiments on cockroaches without killing them. And even if you pull a leg off an adolescent cockroach to test in the SpikerBox, it'll grow back. All of this is an opportunity to discuss what it means for scientists -- neuroscientists or otherwise -- to conduct their work on animals. It demands students think about what constitutes appropriate care and experimentation.

Backyard Brains was partly inspired by co-founder Gage and Tim Marzullo's own experiences teaching neuroscience and recognizing that a lot of the equipment for students to conduct experiments on was out-of-reach -- due to money and due to regulations about animal experimentation. So the two created a "self-imposed engineering challenge" in which they came up with the very simple operation of the Spikerbox.

The startup is working on its next product, an affordable and portable optogenetics device (that means it uses light to stimulate neurons). This is some of the most cutting edge neuroscience technology, says Gage, but the equipment is not accessible outside scientific labs -- that is, until Backyard Brains comes along, this time to offer experiments on fruit flies.