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It’s often said that cockroaches will have the last laugh on us humans by surviving an apocalyptic nuclear war. Let the record show that before this happened, we got the better of roaches by turning them into the basis of DIY science kits built for students.
Over the past two years, Backyard Brains has been selling SpikerBox—a small, $100 gadget that lets you witness the neuronal activity of a roach’s leg. To do this, you just soak a cockroach in an ice bath to anesthetize it, then cut off one of its legs and hook it up to a pair of electrodes on the SpikerBox. The gizmo then amplifies the click-clack sound of the neuron firing and turns that sound into a waveform that can be displayed on a laptop, iPad, or smartphone.
(The leg can stay alive from hours to days, so long as it doesn’t dry out; young cockroaches often regrow legs, which might make this DIY experiment more palatable to animal rights crusaders.)
Why would anyone want to do this? Tim Marzullo, one of Backyard Brains’s co-founders, explains that the company began as a way to perform nervous-system and brain experiments in front of high school and college students at a low cost. “It bothered us that we could not actually show what we did for a living to students,” says Marzullo, who has a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Michigan. “We wanted to see if we could record the electricity of neurons for less than $100 and show people how neurons work.”
So far, Backyard Brains, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has sold more than 1,100 SpikerBox systems. People can purchase a completed kit, which has built-in transistors, resistors, capacitors, and electrodes to help capture and amplify the sound of the roach’s leg. Or they can purchase parts and assemble the kits themselves to learn about electronics in addition to neural circuitry. Hobbyists make up about 10 percent of the sales, high schools account for 20 percent, and the rest of the units have gone to colleges.
You can even order cockroaches from Backyard Brains. ”Our main supplier is a business owner in Arizona, who supplies insects for movies, zoos, and pet owners,” says Marzullo. “The roaches we use are so big that they are usually used to feed animals like lizards.”
Backyard Brains has relied on sales of its machines and a grant from the National Institute of Health to fund the company. Of late, Marzullo finds himself in Chile, responding to government interest in the project. “The idea is to bring this into the classroom and accelerate innovation in the field,” he says. “We’re still in the dark ages when it comes to really understanding how the nervous system and brains works.”
Backyard Brains will also help teach students how to run experiments with substances such as nicotine and changes in temperature to see the effect on neuronal activity. “With a slight modification, you can plug the system into an iPhone and see the electronic activity through an app we developed,” Marzullo says. “We want to make the gear as accessible as possible.”