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Brain Design with Neurorobots

Can robots think and feel? Can they have minds? Can they learn to be more like us? To do any of this, robots need brains. Scientists use “neurorobots” – robots with computer models of biological brains – to understand everything from motor control, and navigation to learning and problem solving. At Backyard Brains, we are working hard to take neurorobots out of the research labs and into the hands of anyone who wants one. How would you like a robot companion with life-like habits and goals? Even better, how would you like to visualize and rebuild its brain in real-time? Now that’s neuroscience made real!

I’m Christopher Harris, a neuroscientist from Sweden who for the past few years have had a bunch of neurorobots exploring my living room floor. Last year I joined Backyard Brains to turn my brain-based rugrats into a new education technology that makes it possible for high-school students to learn neuroscience by designing neurorobot brains. Our robots have cameras, wheels, microphones and speakers, and students use a drag-and-drop interface to hook them all up with neurons and neural networks into an artificial brain. Needless to say, the range of brains and behaviors you can create is limitless! Twice already we’ve had the opportunity to pilot our neurorobots with some awesome high-school students, and we’re learning a ton about how to make brain design a great learning experience.

But hang on, is this just machine learning (ML) dressed up to look like neuroscience? Not at all. Although ML algorithms and biological brains both get their power from connecting lots of neurons into networks that learn and improve over time, there are also crucial differences. Biological neurons are complex and generate spontaneous activity, while ML neurons are silent in the absence of input. Unlike ML networks, biological brain models are ideally suited for “neuromorphic” hardware, which has extraordinary properties, including (some say) the ability to support consciousness. Finally, while ML networks are organized into neat symmetrical layers with only the occasional feedback-loop, biological brains contain a huge diversity of network structures connected by tangles of criss-crossing nerve fibres. Personally I’m a big fan of the brain’s reward system – the sprawling, dopamine-driven network that generates our attention, motivation, decision-making and learning. So rest assured, fellow reward-enthusiasts, our neurorobots have a big bright “reward button” to release dopamine into the artificial brain, reinforce its synapses and shape its personality.

Interested? If you’d like to take part in a workshop to learn brain design for neurorobots, or if you’re a teacher and would like Backyard Brains to come and give your students a hands-on learning experience they’ll never forget; please email me at christopher@backyardbrains.com, and check back here for updates.


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?


The 2017 Summer Fellowship Concludes

Over 11 sunny Ann Arbor weeks, our research fellows worked hard to answer their research questions. They developed novel methodologies, programmed complex computer vision and data processing systems, and compiled their experimental data for poster, and perhaps even journal, publication. But, alas and alack… all good things must come to an end. Fortunately, in research, the end of one project is often the beginning of the next!

Some of the fellows intend to continue working with on the research they began here while they’re away and many of these projects will be continued next summer! Definitely expect to hear updates from Nathan’s EEG Visual Decoding project and Joud’s Sleep Memory project. Additionally, two of the projects will continue throughout the next few months: Zach’s Songbird Identification and Shreya’s Electric Fish Detector projects will continue through to December!

Meet the Fellows, See the Projects

The fellows are off to a great start! Check out their blog posts introducing their projects:

Progress

 The team has been working hard to bring their projects to life. Check out these blog posts on their rig construction and data collection efforts!

Conclusions

Our fellows experience the peaks and valleys of research this summer, but they all came out on top! Check out their final posts for their results, posters, and other details!

Continuations…

A few of our fellows are staying on throughout this next semester for longer term development projects! Zach is going to be back to working with his team on the Songbird Identification Device project, and Shreya will be working through to December on the Electric Fish Detector project. Expect updates on their progress from them soon!