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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?

Prototyping our Low-Cost, Songbird Identifier

Hey, Zach here with another songbird identifier update! Since the last post, I have been busy testing the prototype device by taking bird recordings in various locations. After this week I will be taking a short break before resuming work on the project with the rest of the songbird team in the coming semester. Right now we are primarily planning for the next steps in the development processes that we will begin in September.

Laser cut songbirds are much easier to catch…

Our first goal is to add mobile internet access to the device so bird recordings can be automatically uploaded to our database as they are recorded. The ultimate goal is to design the device that is easy to set up and deploy, at which point it will automatically begin recording and sending data to our website and database where the recordings, geographical location, and classification data can be easily viewed by anyone. We’re looking for a wireless chip currently. These are pretty cool, if you’re unfamiliar, you can connect DIY devices to the internet via a cellular provider. You just need to buy a data plan and set up a SIM card, then your device can connect to a 4G network and send data wirelessly!

The second goal is to make the device autonomous enough that it can run this way for at least a week at a time without intervention. In order to do this, we must create some sort of weather proof housing for the device so the device can be placed anywhere.We also need to have a power source that can allow the device to run for at least a week continuously while keeping the cost of the entire system fairly cheap. This may involve a rechargeable battery pack and/or some sort of solar charger.

Two of our current prototypes.

Now that we’re beginning to actually build our prototypes, it is helpful to begin looking at other, commercial varieties…

The “Wildlife Acoustics Song Meter” is commercial wildlife audio recorder. Running around $1000, without software, it is a prohibitively expensive option for schools, students, or any sort of mass deployment.

The guy she says not to worry about…


The weatherproof housing on the commercial device is nice, and it features weatherproof microphones, which don’t need to be an expensive feature. Additionally, this device runs for up to 400 hours continuously (using 4 D-Cell batteries) and features a “sleep mode,” so it only records when it hears noise, and a recording scheduler, so that you can control what time during the day it takes recordings.

Looking at expensive options like this is encouraging, in a way. So far we have a prototype device which achieves almost the exact same results, just in a less durable package. When we’ve got the whole team back working on this project this upcoming semester, I think we can finalize a low-cost, web-connected, enclosed prototype which will be ready for long term testing and deployment.

Then we can focus on the exciting work, the signal classification and database so we can identify what songbirds the device is hearing and where in the country they are!

We’ll keep you updated over the coming months, for now, it’s time to enjoy my few weeks of summer before I’m back to school and we start back up with this project.  

Tim Marzullo Talks Human-Human-Interface, BYB History on “Neural Implants” Podcast

Recently, our very own Tim Marzullo spoke with the Ladan Jiracek, host and creator of the “Neural Implant Podcast.” This podcast describes its purpose as “bringing together the field of neuroprosthetics, brain-machine interfaces, and brain implants through an understandable conversation on the current topics and breakthroughs in the fields.”

The Podcast runs just under an hour, with Tim covering a great range of subject matter. Beginning with the viral sensation that was (and still is…) our “Human-Human-Interface” TED talk, Tim discusses the genesis of that project and then of the company itself.

Tim then goes on to discuss the role he sees Backyard Brains playing in education as we address the lack of accessible neuroscience tools and education, before discussing his perspective on the future of the field and his hopes for Backyard Brains’ future.

The podcast covers all this and more, but we’ll leave you to listen to it yourself! Check it out at Neural Implant , then consider checking out some of the other podcasts on the site! Many of the scientists interviewed are friends of BYB and are up to fascinating work. Hope you enjoy!