Neuroscience for Everyone!

Erin Biba has a great story in the new issue of Wired about the latest DIY movement: do-it-yourself biotech. The feature peeks into the growing universe of “biohackers”–curious science enthusiasts who are finding ways to tinker with genes, brains, and bodies in basements or garages and on shoestring budgets.

One set of subjects, in particular, caught my eye: Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo. The pair,  former neuroscience post-docs who met at the University of Michigan, run a company called Backyard Brains, which provides low-cost equipment that allows students and amateurs to become neuroscientists for a day (or month!). By pure coincidence, I had met the Backyard Brains boys just days before coming across the Wired article. One chapter of my upcoming book is about cyborg animals, and Gage and Marzullo’s latest product is the RoboRoach, a small kit of electronics that allow any interested amateur turn a living cockroach into a remote-controlled toy.

But the company’s first–and most successful–product is a little contraption known as the SpikerBox. On sale for $90, the device allows customers to observe neurons firing in a cockroach in real time. The SpikerBox has electrodes that can pick up on the electrical activity in a roach’s leg; this neural activity can then be transmitted through a speaker, as sound, or to the screen of an attached iPhone, as that characteristic visual pattern of peaks and valleys.

Gage and Marzullo came up with the idea for the SpikerBox–and their company in general–after being frustrated by the high barrier of entry to neuroscience. In some ways, Gage says, neuroscience is the opposite of astronomy, a field that amateurs can really sink their teeth into. You often have to be an advanced undergraduate to even observe the electrical activity of neurons. “It’s the equivalent of only being able to look at the moon through a telescope if you get a PhD in astronomy,” Gage told me.

The pair hopes that by allowing kids and students to really dig in there and interact with the brain–and see and hear–neurons in action, they can inspire new generations of neuroscientists. (The company’s motto, emblazoned on its custom-made circuit boards, and elsewhere, is “Neuroscience for Everyone!”)

The sentiment really resonates with me. For years, I wanted to be a neuroscientist, and I slogged through hours of organic chemistry lab in hopes that one day, I might get to do something like listen in on neurons or hijack an insect’s nervous system. I gave up on neuroscience before I got within miles of a brain. Perhaps, if I’d been able to play around with a SpikerBox, it would have gotten me excited enough about a career in laboratory neuroscience to prompt me to just grit my teeth through all those interminable hours of orgo.

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