NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

NEAT STUFF: Backyard Brains [Full link to blog for email clients.]

The annual Society for Neuroscience meeting is a massive show of current science, communication, debates, and outreach.  This year we have nearly 30,000 attending scientists with over 2000 presentations a day.  Getting to the posters involves walking among several hundred vendors - ranging from funding agencies, publishers, and research chemical companies to lab equipment manufacturers all vying for our attention.  This is not a bad thing, since it is well worth taking a morning or afternoon to walk through the exhibits.

Today I encountered a trio of our graduate students loaded down with tote-bags, notepads, mouse pads, t-shirts, free books and journals and goodies ("Plush Neurons!").  As a student, I loved the free stuff, and collected postcards from the vendors (mailed out before the meeting) to collect free pens, coffee mugs,  and more (Actually, my favorite were the fridge magnets showing coral reef photography from a chemical supply lab with links to the Cayman Islands).  As a postdoc and junior faculty member I collected items and took them back to the techs in the lab ("Ooh, Timers!").  As a more "experienced" faculty I now browse the vendors looking for things I need ("More Wireless!"), talking to the people who make the stuff I use ("Okay, how do we solve the power supply problem..."), and trying to figure out what I might be able to do with the discovery around the next corner ("You mean I can actually use that inside an MRI machine?").

But every once in a while, something absolutely jumps out of the background noise.  I was told - "Go to booth 305, you'll be glad you did!"  So I went, and discovered "Backyard Brains."

Screen capture from
Backyard Brains sells teaching kits for electrophysiology - this is a $100 kit that allows students of any age to learn principals of neurons and muscles.  The box is so simple - just plug it into stick the needles into an insect muscle, plug it into a laptop/iPhone/iPad, and you have an instant electrophysiology laboratory.  The concept is great - here is an affordable way to take an experiment that formerly required expensive amplifiers, oscilloscopes and stimulators - and make it inexpensive and portable.  Elementary, middle and high school classrooms; Science Fairs, after school programs, Scouts, community events - each of these can become a Neuroscience lab.

The "SpikerBox" show here records and displays (via sight *and* sound) the neuron and muscle action potentials - typically from an insect: cockroach, grasshopper, cricket are best - similar to what many of us trained on in the lab.  I'm sure it can be adapted to other nerve/muscle systems as well.  The EMG SpikerBox does the same thing, but with muscle signals that can be recorded from humans using adhesive electrode pads that stick right on the skin and pick up contractions associated with muscle movement.  While the visual display is important, the sound of neurons "popping" or muscles "whooshing" is one that is certain to stick with anyone who encounters electrophysiology for the first time.

The "RoboRoach" system takes it even a step further, allowing control of electrical stimulation to cause a cockroach to move around in directions that you control.  I know this sounds kind of "squicky" to adults, but just imagine the reaction of a classroom full of kids - I promise you from personal experience that there will much more "Cool!" than "Ew!" by the time the demonstration is over.

As I said, every once in a while, a vendor, product or research report really jumps out at you, and Backyard Brains certainly did it for me!

Check them out, and tell a teacher.  Meanwhile, keep exercising those brains, nerves and muscles - we may even hook them up to let you see and hear them in action!

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