Hi! I am Juan Ferrada, a biochemistry student at the lovely Universidad de Santiago in Chile. That’s me below with my girlfriend Rocia on campus. She is an important part of my project.
At the university I work with Dr. Patricio’s Rojas, a longtime colleague of Backyard Brains. Thanks to Patricio, Backyard Brains’ equipment has been to Antarctica!
In his lab, I study the temperature dependence of ion channels. I am in my last semester of studies, and in Chile every student has to do a “práctica” which is doing an internship for a clinical lab, company, or non-university research lab. Since Backyard Brains is in a sweet spot between company product development and neuroscience research, it makes doing a project with them an exciting, novel, and unorthodox práctica.
About my project
Backyard Brains started out studying neurons in cockroaches, then expanded to muscles in humans (EMG), than hearts (EKG), then brains (EEG), and then eyes (EOG). Now we return come back to the first love and dedication, the neuron, in search of the the most iconic symbol – the intracellularly recording action potential, Hodgkin-Huxley style. Teachers all the time ask Backyard Brains how to replicate, in a certain form, the famous Hodgkin Huxley intracellularly recorded action potential, and I am here to help! To begin, we will go to our backyard. Or, well, my girlfriend’s backyard (I told you Rocia would appear again).
Rocia has a garden, full of exotic and indigenous plants, from rosales to venus flytraps, but there are other things besides plants in the garden. There are things that eat my girlfriend’s plants:
Specifically, The scourge of my girlfriend is named Helix aspersa, also known as the pond snail. They like green leaves, but are especially of eating the tomato plant entirely, fruit and all. In France and Spain, these are the same snails that are cooked and served as elegant dishes (escargot).
These snails are interesting because they have very large pacemaker cells (which fire spontaneous action potentials like the ones you can see in your heart) located in the parietal ganglia (PG) involved in the chemo-mechanical sensation. Most classical intracellular recording techniques involve electrically stimulating the neuron, which can result in artifact, requires multiple electrodes, etc… Given that we will record from cells that are constantly firing spikes, we should be able to record spontaneous action potentials without the need for electrical stimulation. We want to make the preparation as simple as we can, BYB style.
Beginning the Project
To begin, we have to get the snails, which I collected during Easter Weekend. Check.
Now we will do some exploratory surgeries to extract the PG and try to isolate the neurons. To do this, we will anesthetize the snails with a Magnesium Chloride solution. Once we have the neurons, we will build a DIY glass electrode, mated with the original Neuron SpikerBox, to try to record the elusive intracellular action potential. Stay tuned as we begin this project. Saludos desde el Sur!
Chile has some a famous squid called Dosidicus gigas. With a mantle of 4.9 ft and 60 lbs it’s one of the largest of its kind. Experiments using the giant axon of this squid kickstarted the field of biophysics in Chile.
Due to Chile’s isolation, surrounded by the Andes Mountains, the Atacama desert, and the Pacific ocean, we have a very diverse unique fauna, indigenous to the country, and we have an even greater marine fauna thanks to the Humboldt current. But, we don’t have many mammals (around 150) for a country of such North-South extent. But… we do have the smallest wild cat in the americas, Leopardus guigna.
Tiwari SK, Woodruff ML.Helix aspersa neurons maintain vigorous electrical activity when co-cultured with intact H. aspersa ganglia. Comp Biochem Physiol C. 1992;101(1):163-74.
Acoustic Wildlife Recording promotes Citizen Science!
Here at Backyard Brains, we are all about citizen science, or the idea that the scientific community benefits from the collaboration with members of the general public for collecting and analyzing information about the natural world. Very DIY, very much the “for everyone” in our slogan. In 2017, Backyard Brains partnered with the University of Michigan’s Multidisciplinary Design Project (MDP) to focus neuroscience education on another kind of brain: birds! With the help of BYB, a team of undergraduate engineering students worked to develop a new kind of “Backyard Brain.” The idea was this: Create a low-cost device that could be deployed in backyards that would identify and record birdsongs! This could be used to help track and log bird populations across the country, which is an important index of environmental health. Development of this project continued over the course of our 2017 summer fellowship , and that progress is detailed in Zach’s summer blog posts. BYB and MDP will team up again for the project this year, with a new team and a new, expanded goal. But first, how did such a project come to mind? Naturally, it is the technological next step of a classic, “analog,” cataloging method…
The Audubon Christmas Bird Count
The National Audubon Society‘s annual “Christmas Bird Count” is perhaps the greatest example of democratized citizen science. Since 1900, volunteers have braved harsh, wintry conditions to help count and identify bird populations in their hometowns, as seen in Audubon’s photo above. These volunteers, from all across the country, then send in their findings, thus informing a national bird census.
The data gathered by initiatives like the Christmas Bird Count and Birdsong Identification project is incredibly important. Bird populations are very sensitive to environmental changes, making them a strong indicator of environmental health, stability, and possible effects of climate change. In this way, bird population trends can also be a lens to see our own world through.
This is the kind of citizen science that has inspired us, and others, to come up with devices which could help perform this task. Our work began in this field last year with the development of a “Birdsong Identification” device. The aim was to create a low cost, easily-distributed listening device which could be deployed to identify songbirds, and Zach’s project this summer started to do just that.
Birds, Rain, Wind, and More
The newest iteration of this project doesn’t stop at birdsongs. For 2018, the BYB-MDP partnership is looking to expand the reach of the project to create an acoustic environmental recorder that can also be listening for rainfall, wind, bats, coyotes, and other wildlife! There is a lot of information to be gleaned by turning an ear on our wilderness. Birdsongs are still on the menu, but with a new team (see above) and a new direction, the goal is to create a low-cost device which can be deployed and modified by both students and scientists to focus on whatever environmental indices interest them most!
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!