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Backyard Brains welcomes 2019 University of Santiago interns

Backyard Brains is now in its second year of interns from the University of Santiago de Chile (affectionately called Usach). Last year we had a project recording the ganglia of snails – and this we will continue our voyage in the world of invertebrates with an old favorite and a new favorite. Cockroaches and Clams.

The ElectrocardioCLAM

Hi, my name is Eduardo Isla, and I am in my final year as a student of biochemistry working at both USACH and UChile (Universidad de Chile). I am completing my undergraduate thesis right now as well as working for two months at the Backyard Brains Chile office. My thesis is in a quite different area (virology) working on epitranscriptomics of HIV-2. In my spare time I like to play MMORPG games as well as explore outdoor photography. 

A lot of high school students like Backyard Brains’ Neuropharmacology experiment, as you can indirectly study synaptic activity in crickets, but it is time for an upgrade. First, a little bit about neurotransmitters

Did you know that neurotransmitters were discovered working on frog hearts? Everything began in 1921, when an Austrian scientist named Otto Loewi discovered the first neurotransmitter. In his experiment, he used two frog hearts. Heart 1 was still connected to the vagus nerve, and Heart 1 was placed in a chamber that was filled with Ringers solution. This chamber was connected to a second chamber that contained Heart 2. So, fluid from chamber 1 could flow into chamber 2. Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve (which was attached to Heart 1) caused Heart 1 to slow down its heart rate. Loewi observed that after a delay, Heart 2 also slowed down. From this experiment, Loewi hypothesized that electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve released a chemical into the fluid of chamber 1 that flowed into chamber 2. He called this chemical “Vagusstoff”. We now know this chemical as the neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. It is also interesting to know English scientist Henry Hallet Dale had previously isolated acetylcholine. So, they both shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1936.

For the Backyard Brains neuropharmacology upgrade I will use some Clams, yes Clams. We eat them, but they are animals too, and believe or not they have a heart. So, I’m trying to adapt Loewi’s experiments into much simpler animals, easier to access/buy and less traumatic to work on. These experiments consist of using the Backyard Brains Heart and Brain SpikerBox to make recordings of electrocardiograms on clam hearts and the effects of different compounds. For this, first of all I need to record an electrocardiogram of the heart of clams. Afterwards, I will then treat them with various compounds to attempt to alter the heart rate. I also need to ensure that the record that we actually obtain is EKG and not movement of the electrodes. In these first few days I am trying to optimize the preparation, opening the clam while keeping the cardiovascular system intact.

The Quantified RoboRoach

Hi, my name is Claudio Moreno, and I am also in my final year working at USach in the lab of Neuroscience. I am doing my thesis in ion channel physiology, studying TRPM8 channels. TRP channels are the body’s temperature transducers, and TRPM8 is responsible for the feeling of  coldness. In Chile we get cranky when the temperature gets below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (I know, nothing like Michigan), and we can thank our TRPM8 channels for that.

When not studying TRPM8 channels I enjoy going playing video games and guitar. I’ve being playing guitar for 13 years and it has been one of the best things I have done to get my mind distracted during moments of high stress. I also like to travel to different cities and countries. I have travelled to many cities here on Chile (my country), and it’s really beautiful, so if you have an opportunity to come here, trust me, you won’t regret it.

The RoboRoach is one of Backyard Brains’ original inventions where you can control cockroach locomotion by electrically stimulating the antenna, but, strangely, Backyard Brains has never systematically measured the adaptation rate. Until now. To do this experiment we are doing a bunch of RoboRoach surgeries, so we can have a high enough sample size to compare sensory adaptation rate.

Once a RoboRoach is recovered from the surgery, we can start to see if we can control our RoboRoach and measure turning responses with time! And for that we built a lego tower, which has a floating ball the cockroach walks on, along with an optical mouse to read the floating ball’s movements. When the antenna neurons are activated with electrical stimuli, they will send this electrical information (called spikes) to the cockroach brain, stimulating the neural-motor reactions. The cockroach will change direction, and we can measure this change.

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This contraption allows us to measure precisely the turning of the cockroach in response to stimulation of the antenna, so we can see how it adapts over time. Now it is time to collect the data and finally say with some degree of certainty the adaptation rates across cockroaches. Like all kinds of animals with a central neural system, you can expect that neurons can adapt to a stimulus (which Backyard Brains has anecdotally observed many times in the RoboRoach). Now it is time to quantify! I am starting to get skilled at the surgery, and below you can see my first successful antenna nerve recording!


Brain Awareness Week

Every year in late March, scientists across the world band together to participate in Brain Awareness week, an extended event created by The Society for Neuroscience and Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives to expose kids to neuroscience research. It is a week-long celebration of the brain, really, with participants ranging from universities to government agencies in over 120 countries! Here at Backyard Brains, we are all about hands-on neuroscience education, so we’ve put together a list of some of our Greatest Hits experiments to spice up your week!

There are a lot of typical experiments used as a go-to for talking about the brain and introducing kids to thinking about it, like looking at cross-sections of sheep brains or listening to a talk on neurons, but what if you don’t have any sheep brains on hand? We have found that the best way to get kids excited about the brain is to get them into really interactive experiments, ones where they can move things and see reactions in real time, and this is the basis of our Muscle/Neuroengineering line of products.

At Backyard Brains, we are always striving to make neuroscience accessible, and our demonstrations are some of the best ways to do that! Often when we are at conferences, we call on civilians approaching our booth to help us out as we showcase a new experiment, proving that neuroscience is truly for everyone. Here are some experiments that we have noticed are some of the biggest crowd-pleasers.

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DIY Neuroprosthetics: A Third Thumb?

The Third Thumb

An 8th Grader’s Exploration in DIY Neuroprosthetics

Several months ago, a crowdfunded classroom got their hands on several of our neuroprosthetic kits – like The Claw and the Muscle SpikerShield Bundle. This allowed students in Nokomis Regional schools to begin experimenting with hands-on neuroscience experiments! One of the students, 8th grader Kaiden K., was interested in developing a prosthetic, but his project had a twist question: What if we had a third thumb?

The Third Thumb

Kaiden’s project is twofold: First, it is a project on the history of prosthetics. From wooden hands to mechanical prosthetics, and now modern, low-cost DIY prosthetics, there have been a lot of remarkable developments along the way as we strive to create new opportunities for people to bring mobility and ability into their lives.
Using a 3D printer and the tools his teacher had crowdsourced on Donor’s Choose, Kaiden was able to develop a neuroprosthetic which anyone can plug into and control with their brain!
By recording from their muscles, Kaiden is able to put other students at the science fair in control of the prosthetic hand.
The second part of the project is still underway: developing a neuroprosthetic which anyone can wear which augments typical human ability and mobility, by adding the third thumb! To put it fantastically: Kaiden is developing cybernetic human enhancements. Literally, 8th graders are contributing to helping us become cyborgs! Too cool.

In an example of parallel, historic discovery – Kaiden had the idea for an extra thumb and began his RnD… then just like many other great minds, discovered he wasn’t the only one doing this work!

This idea has been explored by prosthetic designer Dani Clode – she gave a TEDx talk which is also a great watch!

See her TEDx talk here to learn more about the Third Thumb project.

We’re excited to see Kaiden further refine and develop his project. Kaiden wants to investigate multiple degrees of freedom, perhaps 2-axis control, and see what he can develop. We’ll be sure to update you as he continues experimenting!

Required Kit:
Muscle SpikerShield

Develop your own Neuroprosthetics using the Muscle SpikerShield!

Buy The Muscle SpikerShield