2017
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Neuroscience for Everyone!

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Can You Hack Your Brain to Learn More Efficiently?

This past summer, one of our interns worked on (and continues to work on!) a neuroscience project which many sleep-deprived students have literally dreamt of: Learning in your sleep! Joud’s project caught the eye of a few student documentarians from Princeton and they flew out to Ann Arbor to interview her.

Joud’s and the documentarian’s focus was on Targeted Memory Reactivation (TMR), which is, roughly, the study of how the brain strengthens memories. In Joud’s research, she studied the effects of “cuing” and memory reactivation during sleep, coming up with a methodology to study whether or not she could help subjects memorize patterns more efficiently.

This short documentary details Joud’s project and also goes to speak with other experts in the field – Take a look!

We hope you enjoy, we think the students did a great job!

And if you’re interested in reading more about Joud’s project, you can check out her blog-journal in the links below!

Joud: Beginning the TMR Project

Joud: The Importance of Deep Sleep

Joud: Success in Hacking Sleep, Memory

Joud is continuing with her research personally and we’re excited to share updates from her with you in the future!

 

 


#BugsR4Girls

Last year, Sophia, 8, a young entomologist, was being bullied at school because of her excitement for and interest in bugs and science. Now, just one year later, she has been published as a junior author in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America!
With a craving which couldn’t be curbed to capture, observe, befriend, and release as many insects as possible, Sophia, our intrepid grade-school scientist, continued to pursue the science which interested her, despite the fact that it was singling her out at school.

To encourage Sophia, her mother made a plea online for entomologists and woman scientists to send encouragement and support to Sophia so she could see a future in her passion and not be discouraged by how the other students at school treated her for her excitement.

The effect was immediate. There was an outpouring of encouragement from scientists all around the world. Sophia was suddenly surrounded by supporters who were sharing their own research with her and encouraging her to continue studying and observing her favorite insects. Many even sent Sophia pictures of their own bugs and research and invited her and her mother to come out and visit their labs!

This viral sensation, when revealed at school, markedly changed how the other students viewed Sophia’s excitement for insects.

In her words, “The kids in my school, whenever they find a bug they come and tell me and say “Sophia, Sophia, we found a bug!” After I was famous, sometimes people in my town would come up and say,“Hi, you’re Sophia the Bug Girl!” and it makes me feel good.” This is a prime example of the importance of science education and awareness, and an example of the mission at the heart of our company.

Sophia and her bug friends

I suspect that in Sophia’s case, like many others, it wasn’t out of cruelty that other students teased her, but out of a lack of understanding. But once Sophia’s story went viral, Sophia’s interest in bugs was validated. Far from some weird hobby, it became clear that her passion for entomology was actually a very celebrated and important pursuit.

Sophia’s story inspires us because our neuroscience kits and experiments are made with the hope that they reach the hands of young, passionate scientists like her, who, with a thirst for knowledge, are able to perform science experiments and make meaningful discoveries. And, like Sophia, our work stems from an appreciation of insects, and thus we know what it’s like to be called “bug people!” We’re often first recognized by the cockroach emblazoned on our T-Shirts, and we see this distinction as recognition and validation of our work! We have a lot to learn about ourselves from insects, evidenced in our own research and in the research of many others!

Our favorite insect, you might have guessed, is the cockroach. We like them because they are hardy, large, easy to care for, and are often given a bad rep in popular media. We’ve done what we can to flip the script, to prove that cockroaches, like any more socially acceptable insect, are not inherently dirty or gross; rather, they are beautiful bugs that offer us an opportunity to learn about and teach neuroscience!

This one was kind enough to pose for me on my T-Shirt for a quick glamour shot! (Not shown, 30 attempts with motion blur as the cockroach skittered around…)

 

Often, students react with cries of “gross!” when we show them the cockroaches, but before long they begin to realize just how cool and interesting these bugs are. We take care of our cockroaches and encourage others to do the same, returning them to their colonies after performing experiments so they can continue to romp around their egg-carton mazes and chow cockroach kibble in peace.

We’re not sure how Sophia feels about cockroaches, but in her published paper she proclaims, “My favorite bugs are snails, slugs, and caterpillars, but my favorite one of all is grasshoppers. Last year in the fall I had a best bug friend and his name was Hoppers.”

In fact, you may recall one of our own student research fellows was also recently published for a paper she wrote on grasshoppers! Dieu My, our fellow, created an experiment to learn about the grasshopper’s nervous system.

In the experiment, an iPad is used to create a dot which appears to come rushing at the grasshopper from some distance away, simulating a looming or approaching object. When the grasshopper sees the dot fast approaching, it sends “flight” signals to its legs which, in nature, would cause it to quickly jump away.

An illustration from Dieu My’s publication detailing the grasshopper’s DCMD

With this prep, Dieu My was able to record from this part of the Grasshopper’s nervous system, called the Descending Contralateral Motion Detector (DCMD), to better understand how fast and how effective this reflex is. Then, after the experiment, the grasshoppers are released back into the wild!

Dieu My and her Grasshopper

Just as we were excited about Dieu My’s first publication, we are also excited about Sophia’s first publication! The paper Sophia contributed to was written in response to the viral effect of Sophia’s story. Morgan D. Jackson of University of Guelph, Ontario, authored the article with Sophia’s help. The focus was on the importance of scientific communication and the effect that social media can have on bringing positive awareness to the field. Tracking the story from initial tweet to viral impact, the paper seeks to identify just what made Sophia’s story and appeal so compelling. It concludes that Sophia’s story afforded many scientists a chance to “spread their influence and enthusiasm across the globe and into the homes of hundreds of people who may have felt similarly alone or ostracized.”

We hope that this young scientist keeps on pursuing whatever interests her, no matter what other people think. If she continues to be interested in bugs, great! But if she decides to become a computer scientist, an engineer, a chemist, a biologist, or whatever else might catch her interest as she grows and learns more about other fields, we hope that she is successful and has no lack of encouragement or support.

This young love for science is what inspires us to continue to create tools and experiments for young people to begin similarly pursuing their interests. If you are a young scientist, the parent of a young scientist, or know a young scientist, we’d love to hear from you! Interested specifically in neuroscience or not, our field is one which is made strong by community and support systems. Scientists succeed together, feel free to send us your story at hello@backyardbrains.com and we’ll do what we can to encourage and support you!

We first heard about this story via an article on Science Alert and found a great photographic write-up of the saga on Today. And finally, here is Sophia’s published paper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Why are Neuroscientists Interested in… plants?

But Why Plants?

Recording an Action Potential from a Sensitive Mimosa!

With the Introduction of the The Plant SpikerBox, you can, for the first time ever, explore plant behavior and electrophysiology at home or in the classroom. But wait…. Plants? Why are neuroscientists interested in… plants…?

What has a brain?

When we work with young students, we often begin by asking them “What has a brain?” You get your typical responses, like “I have a brain,” “my dog,” “my cat,” etc. Then we ask them to clarify, how are they defining that category, and often we hear the response “They move on their own!” This is true, and the mechanics behind movement in brained creatures is a fundamental element of neuroscience and electrophysiology. But, there are living creatures without neurons that move: Plants!

Certainly you’ve seen a plant growing towards the sun, opening up its leaves or petals during the day for better exposure or pollination, but what’s more, there are some plants which exhibit rapid movements in response to direct stimulation. We created the Plant SpikerBox to record the electrical activity of these plants! Like the Neuron or Muscle SpikerBox, the Plant SpikerBox is a kit which is designed to make electrophysiology preps easy, so that students and teachers can focus on the science and experiments and not be bogged down by technical issues.

Disclaimer: Venus Flytraps do not have subterranean brains.

We proved this to be an idea worth spreading… Our 2017 TED Talk (Vancouver, BC) introduces viewers to this little-known world of plant electrophysiology. On the TED main stage, our CEO Greg Gage explains the principal elements of electrophysiology research, demonstrating that the electrical signals which control our own bodies are also present in plants! He proves this through a number of demonstrations, first by visualizing his heartbeat with our Heart and Brain SpikerShield, before moving onto the plants.

You can see the TED talk here!

To return specifically to the Plant SpikerBox, we encourage users to first find a Venus Flytrap, the plant that Darwin called “One of the most delightful plants in the world,” and investigate its eating behavior…

Venus Flytrap

In order to supplement its nutrition, Venus Flytraps capture and “eat” insects. In order to do so, they have to snap their traps shut quickly so their prey doesn’t escape. But how does the plant know when to snap its trap shut and how do the mechanics of this action work? 

Stimulating a Trigger Hair in a Venus Flytrap

Just like humans and animals, Venus Flytraps use electrical activity to move! Recording this signal with the Plant SpikerBox reveals that, like us, plants use “Action Potentials” to send movement signals! In the TED talk, Greg demonstrates how Venus Flytraps distinguish between false alarms and real prey. These are the amazing plants which inspired our interest in plant electrophysiology, we hope you find them as incredible as we do! Check out this experimental write-up to learn more!

Sensitive Mimosa

Anatomy of a Sensitive Mimosa and its Behaviors

Another interesting, rapidly moving plant is the Sensitive Mimosa, or Mimosa Pudica. Also known as the “shy,” or “bashful” plant, the Sensitive Mimosa will fold up its leaves and branches when it is touched or flicked. Using the Plant SpikerBox, you can experiment with the Sensitive Mimosa and discover how Action Potentials are responsible, again, for the dramatic movement response when you flick the stem of the plant. On the TED stage, Greg demonstrates these two kinds of behaviors, showing how the leaves fold up with soft touches, but entire branches fold when flicked. See the experiment here!

The Sensitive Mimosa has also received some attention lately following the announcement of the 2017 Novel Prizes! This year’s prize for Physiology or Medicine went to researchers who study circadian rhythms, or sleep cycles, which were originally discovered in the Sensitive Mimosa! For a great explanation, check out the Nobel Prize website!

Interspecies Plant-Plant-Communicator

But perhaps the most exciting experiment you can perform with your Plant SpikerBox is the Interspecies Plant-Plant-Communicator experiment. To demonstrate the ubiquitous nature of the action potential, Greg uses the Plant SpikerBox on the TED stage to capture a signal from a Venus Flytrap and send it into a Sensitive Mimosa…

Screencapture taken just a moment before Interspecies Plant-Plant-Communication is achieved…

The Plant SpikerBox and Plant Sciences have a lot of potentials (ha!). There are countless other experiments to be performed on these plants alone, but investigating other plants opens a world of opportunities. Perhaps the Trigger Plant or the Telegraph Plant are hiding electrical signals? Perform your own experiments! Let us know what you discover!

The Plant SpikerBox is available in our store, and the companion recording software, SpikeRecorder, is free to download.

What will you discover?