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Citizen Science Sleepaway Camp: BYB Visits Campus Party Brazil

Before I spill the Feijoada about Backyard Brains’ awesome experience at Campus Party Brazil, I should mention that I firmly believe that education can save the world. I should also mention that in regards to our brains, according to neuroscience research, your education lasts your entire life.

I’ll cut to the chase: my recent Brazilian adventure with Backyard Brains has inspired me to write this to promote lifelong education and moreover, to remind you that learning can be enjoyable and even thrilling. It certainly doesn’t have to be bound to a classroom. Keep in mind that evolutionarily speaking, survival did not depend on absorbing curated lesson plans 8 hours a day in a classroom, but upon chaotic and reactive information-gathering experiences.

At birth our brains develop at an extremely rapid rate. Babies form new neurons at a rate of 250,000 every minute! By the time a child is three years old, their brain will reach 80% of adult volume and create close to 1000 trillion connections between billions of neurons. There is a prevailing myth about the brain that after a certain age we stop forming new neurons. This has been dispelled by current research and it’s clear that the brain has an amazing ability to change throughout life. This is called neuroplasticity and it’s the brain’s ability for our neurons to rewire and add new neurons in regions involved in learning throughout our lifetimes. Believe it or not, these new neurons show the same plasticity as seen in the rapidly developing brain of newborns. On top of that, the adult brain uses about 25% of the body’s metabolic energy despite being on average only 2% of our entire body weight. So considering that a quarter of your energy going to supporting you brain, which has this amazing adaptability to develop and optimize throughout life, why not continually take advantage of your own brain’s superpower of learning?

So, what if we threw super-fun, non-stop parties that were also packed full of learning opportunities? What if these events ran non-stop for up to a week straight? What if we invited world leaders of technology, entertainment, innovation, creativity and science to give inspiring keynote speeches and exciting, intimate workshops? Would the world become a better place?

No need to ponder any further: this type of forward-thinking, multidisciplinary educational party already exists! It’s called Campus Party and Backyard Brains had a blast earlier this year at Campus Party Brazil!

The very first Campus Party to happen in all of Asia is coming soon. This July 6th – 8th, join us at Campus Party Singapore! Backyard Brains will be there putting on two workshops each day. Come learn about neuroscience with us through fun hands-on experiments. You can create your own cyborg cockroach in the RoboRoach Workshop and control your friend’s mind in the Human Interface Workshop. We hope to see you there!!
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Secret Life of Jellyfish

Hello all! My name is Anastasiya and I’m a computer engineering and neuroscience double major at the University of Cincinnati. I’m curious about the world around me and my favorite thing to do is learn. My hobbies include making strange noises, fangirling over the fuel efficiency of my car, and volunteering while spreading knowledge to the general public. I mainly volunteer at the Cincinnati Observatory, home of the oldest professional telescope open to the public, and at Cincinnati Public Schools, where I help out with a Lego League robotics club and mentor a group of high school scholars.

This summer I’m investigating ‘The Secret Life of Jellyfish’, specifically, of the clytia hemisphaerica. They’re super tiny (they max out at about 20mm in diameter) and seem to be capable of doing things they shouldn’t be able to do. By that I mean that these jellyfish seem to exhibit relatively complex behaviors without making use of a brain (since they don’t have one). They’re also kind of ridiculous and paradoxical to me, because trying to lift one out of the water could easily kill the clytia since the surface tension of the water is too much for it to handle, but you can chop it in half and it’ll be just fine as two separate jellies. Weird (but cool)!

The current plan is to record videos of the jellyfish in various situations and then use some form of machine learning to figure out the jellies’ behavior. I’ve looked at some potential tracking software, libraries, and random snippets of code, and it seems that OpenCV is my best bet for analyzing the videos, so I’ve spent the last couple weeks learning about it and how to use it in Visual Studio 2017 with C++. But learning about code is not all I’ve done; I’ve also been preparing for the impending arrival of clytia hemisphaerica to our laboratory.

I first made sure to get a (hopefully) decent environment set up for them. Clytia hemisphaerica need salt water at a salinity of 1.0268, or 37 parts per thousand, and a small current to keep them swimming as this is critical to their health. The housing units I set up are based on the traditional beaker method and include 3.7L beakers (actually 6”x8” glass vases from Amazon) filled with artificial sea water as well as a constant current stimulator made of acrylic rectangles, hot glue, plastic pipettes, 12V 5RPM motors, some wires, and an AC to DC adapter. All of these things together should provide a nice home for the jellies when they arrive, but that is not all I need to prepare.

Jellyfish, like many living things, need a food source, and the one I’m preparing is artemia, otherwise known as brine shrimp. Brine shrimp are pretty easy to hatch, and just one cap-full of brine shrimp eggs makes a very large amount of baby brine shrimp, enough to turn an entire bottle and beaker a shade of orange. That must mean that, after a one-time investment of a large batch of artemia, I am all set on jellyfish food for the summer, right? Well, there’s a catch. The catch here is that clytia hemisphaerica should only eat 1.5 to 4 day old brine shrimp, and eating ones that are are outside this age range for prolonged periods of time could have deadly consequences for the poor jellies (and for my easily over-attached heart). This means I’ll have to constantly hatch and culture new batches of brine shrimp and keep track of hatch dates so I have the proper feed for these picky eaters.

 

At this point, I’m pretty sure everything is ready for the jellies to come in, and they should be gracing us with their presence any day now. I’m very excited to be working on this project as a fellow at Backyard Brains, and I can’t wait to see these jellyfish in person! The more I learn about them, the more mysterious and intriguing clytia hemisphaerica become, and I look forward to finding at least some pieces to the puzzle that is their behavior.


Nothing in life is free…

“You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.”

-Sam Harris

 

The previous quote originated in a book called Free Will by Sam Harris. I take it to loosely mean that we do not exert conscious control over our thoughts and actions (free will), though we do not live out our lives as mere puppets of fate serving a larger-than-life purpose (determinism). Perhaps we are the sum total of our thoughts and actions, which themselves are traces of information propagating through a complex network of biological structures that has adapted to all it has ever mediated. Demonstrating the ubiquity of the signal traces which accompany our actions can act as the first evidence that it is the nature of humans to meander stochastically through space and time and to perceive our own “free will” so as to feel a little bit better about ourselves.

Now where would one look for free will? It is my belief that the first place to look is the final stage in motor control for the brain: the Primary Motor Cortex. Attaching an electrode vaguely over the region of the motor cortex associated with arm movements, and subsequently initiating arm movements being recorded via electromyography (EMG), or electrical muscle recordings, offers a simplified paradigm for scoping out a “readiness potential.” This characteristic waveform is an artifact of movement initiation, and it is possible that once the onset of the readiness potential can be accurately detected, a machine learning algorithm could be used to classify the signal and subsequently alert a subject of their intention to make a movement prior to onset. My first step was to locate the readiness potential, and I believe that I have done so. My next step is to test a wide variety of classification systems, filters, and novel computational methods for predicting arm movements.

The above figure shows the average EEG signal across multiple trials aligned by the recorded onset of movement via EMG. Movement initiation is shown by a vertical bar at 0 seconds. The monte carlo test window of 95% confidence is shown in red. The EMG was recorded from the right wrist flexor with the ground wire connected to the medial epicondyle. The EEG was recorded from C3 on the left side of the head with the reference electrode placed below the base of the occiput and the ground placed on the left mastoid, behind the ear.

My name is Aaron and I like to hear myself talk too much. I have one more year of schooling until I obtain my BS in Bioengineering from the University of Pittsburgh. In my spare time, I’ll pretty much do anything as long as it’s fun and/or challenging and/or competitive. Such activities may include, but are not limited to: frisbee, soccer, piano, baseball, board/card games, Rocket League (ranked Diamond in Standard and Doubles), and eating a lot. Also, I enjoy a good conversation.

This is a picture of me (left), my siblings (all older), and my niece.

 

My project is actually a continuation of previous Fellow’s project back in 2016. I’m going to be expanding on Patrick’s work, so make sure to check out his blog posts for some background information!