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Mind Control. With Lasers.

Coming soon to a backyard near you.

At least, that’s the idea. We’re sure the technology will catch up if we give it enough prodding and throw an intern or two its way. And hey if not? There’s still lasers, sounds like a win/win to me. Wait we don’t get lasers either? This is really going downhill fast. Apparently the higher ups don’t think beams of focused high energy photons wantonly sprayed at the brains of schoolchildren is good science.


I don’t see why anyone would have a problem with this

Ok you know what, how about beams of somewhat lower energy photons, and brains of something whose parents won’t send us more angry letters after little Johnny tattletale has another run in with the burn ward. How about LEDs and a bug? Well then.

Mind control.

Coming soon to a backyard near you.

And it is. Technically. So long as the mind you want to control is our tough lil buddy Drosophila Melanogaster AKA the fruit fly. And so long as the nefarious deeds you want your insatiable army of insect minions to thoughtlessly carry out is…sticking out their tongue. THEN YES. We’ve got mind control.


It’s called optogenetics, and it’s pretty crazy stuff, really. Long story short, we can stick a gene into the fruit flies that makes certain neurons, say, the sweet taste receptor Gr5a, sensitive to certain wavelengths of light-in this case, red light, because it is capable of passing through their exoskeleton into the neurons beneath. That way, if you set the little guys in front of an LED and blast away, they think the Kool Aid man just suplexed their face. And what is a fruit fly’s reaction to opening the floodgates of sugary heaven? They stick out their tongue.

It turns out you can rig up an LED with a microcontroller so that when two wires from the circuit come in contact with the fly, it completes the circuit, treating the fly as a resistor, and activates the LED. This lets us time contact with the fly to when the fly receives light (and therefore sweet-tasting) stimulation.

If that was a little hard to see, here’s an up close and personal version of the events.

And of course, nothing is truly scientific until we’ve mechanized it

It might sound trivial, but there’s actually a lot to getting a response like this without any invasive action other than light stimulation. Optogenetics really opens a lot of possibilites up for experimentation that just weren’t feasible before. It took the world of neuroscience by storm just a few years ago and is on the short list for the Nobel Prize, and we‘ve got a crack team of top scientists working to bring this technology to your own backyard.

Ok, slight exaggeration again, maybe, they’re actually interns working on it. Well, an intern. But we’ve stuck him in our basement with a steady supply of mountain dew and cheetos, and if that’s not science, I don’t know what is.



I’ve just been told that in fact its not actually science. According to them, “good science” involves some sort of method, and numbers, and repeatable experimentation. Apparently blood, sweat and cheeto dust just aren’t enough for some people. We’ll have the intern fill you in on the details.

Gift from Iran thanks to Open Source: cockroach research tools and experiments made by students

On January 1st, we received a New Year’s gift from another continent: Neuroscience tools and experiments made by a group of high school students selected from the 20 best rated schools of Iran. They were written lab reports, submitted for an interdisciplinary neuroscience competition that utilized our open source experiments with cockroaches as a resource for the kids to make their own research and inventions.We here summarize and celebrate their efforts, you can also download the original reports yourself. This is a result of our 3 year friendship with Mohsen Omrani, an Iranian neuroscientist, doing research in nearby Ontario, Canada. He acts as a community liason between the Iran Science communities and the wide network of scientists around the world (Every Iranian Neuroscientist we know seems to be a colleague of Mohsen).


Of note is that in Iran, students choose to follow a biology route or a mathematical root when they are in the 9th grade. There was an emphasis for each team to have students with both biology background and mathematics background so they learn to be able to communicate with each other. So what then did the students investigate?

To begin, a question we often are asked is: “Why Cockroaches?” Indeed this was also asked by members of the Allameh Helli 4 High-school: they submitted the hypothesis that the cockroach is the perfect “explorer” companion for a researcher,  because of their access and survival in complicated and uncertain environments. In other words, they declare that roaches could become better tools than robots for scientists to reach unknown places. The main influences for this conclusion was the article “Line following terrestrial insect biobots” by Tahmid Latif and Alper Bozkurt .

The most remarkable thing about this competition is not that the students built their own tools for the experiments using open source resources, like schematics, code and design… but they made their own custom modifications to design different experiments from the ones we had made.

One excellent example of this is the Robo Roach version (a remote controlled cockroach)  of Alireza Farzad, Behzad Haghgoo, Amir Reza Haji Anzehaei, Aria Hassanpour, Mohammad Reza Osouli of  Allame Helli one High School.

They used an IR System to send a signal to a IR receiver circuit that’s connected to the cockroach antenna AND their cerci. We have only begun cercal stimulation, the Iranian students beat us to it! In words of the students:

“Cerci is a very sensitive organ which receives smallest movements of the air and warns the cockroach to run. We thought that cerci may have a low adaptation rate because it is directly related to its life being. By stimulating the cerci we make an illusion of danger and we make the cockroach run forward”.

Their results to this new experiment was that “ 3V potential difference is the best combination for cerci electric stimulation” and that the cockroach doesn’t adapt to the stimulation of the cerci, unlike the antennas that show strong adaptation properties.

Danial Zohourian and Amir Masoud Azadfar, from a different high school,  focused on cerci stimulation only, coming up with a very useful table of results on how fast the cockroach goes (steps/ per second) according to voltage.

Voltage Recorded Steps Steps per Second
0.5 10 steps in 7 seconds 1.42
1.0 9 steps in 3 seconds 3.00
1.5 12 steps in 4 seconds 3.00
2.0 13 steps in 3 seconds 4.33
2.5 10 steps in 5 seconds 2.00
3.0 13 steps in 4 seconds 3.25
3.5 No Respond Adapted

Interestingly, they had a different outcome than the students from Allame Helli one High School: they concluded that  best stimulation is at 2 volts, not 3, and that cercal stimulation does adapt.

So what is the correct answer?  Only that new experiments are necessary to understand why there are different results, and what improvements are important to obtain a more accurate conclusion. But as we have learned, the best experiments come from disputes between scientists that motivate each other to improve their work.

Regarding on this emphasis on possible errors to improve experiments, the writing of  students Tarannom Taghavi and Nastaran Fatemi, from Kherad high school caught our attention. They tried  to tackle the main problem of the Roboroach: the behvioral adaptation to the stimuli that controls the cockroach:  “ If we can produce the signals in it’s ganglion and send it to the cockroach, there won’t be adaptation anymore.  As we are creating the signals and sending it to its decision making  center, we might be able to take control of cockroach’s decision  making process.” They did this by recording roaches signal with a spikerbox and trying to send it back to the ganglia.


Interpretation of the electric signal obtained from the cockroach.

 Although it wasn’t successful, coming up with this hypothesis to solve the main problem of RoboRoaches was impressively creative. And, as we noted, we really liked the focus of their paper in the mistakes that were made and how to make corrections for a future experiment: they were the only students that made emphasis on the importance of iteration, of making a lot of failed experiments that are patiently and constantly improved, before making any discovery. Thus our informal “Golden Cockroach” award goes to Tarannom Taghavi and Nastaran Fatemi.

Finally, we want to give a special mention to the only group that designed a new interface: a special cockroach treadmill  to estimate the adherence of these insects legs:


Keep on inventing, Keep on discovering, our fellow young colleagues across the globe.

You can download the original writings here and see the competition video below

Backyard Brains visits China

This past August, we were graciously invited by ZAST (Zhejiang Association for Science and Technology) to come to China to give a series of workshops and talks in Hangzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai at the various impressive science museums there. Similarly to the United States, Neural Engineering is a relatively new discipline for the public, and there was enormous interest in the topic.

We were honored. In early August, Tim flew to Hangzhou and began the Sino-Backyard Brains adventures. At the beginning of the trip, we gave a “deep workshop” where the staff of the Zhejiang Museum of Science and Technology (ZMST), affiliated to ZAST, received 6 hours of training on interactive experiments, ranging from our cockroach work, to our earthworm conduction velocity experiments, to our new human interfaces, and even our (then just prototyped) EEG experiments.

Hangzhou is famous for its West Lake, and it was quite beautiful walking around the city and visiting the nearby Dragonwell (Longjing) tea farms, all the while planning the subsequent science talks with Bing, who was the organizer of the visit.

One of the highlights was to give an ASTalk at the ZMST. The audience consisted of a mix of students from local high schools, universities, and the public. They were treated to the first demos of our robot hand interface, a Chilean-USA collaboration between Backyard Brains and the Chilean Startup “HackerHand.”


This was followed by a organized field trip to the Zhuxiang National Park with grammar school students, the ZAST’s museum staff, and an entomologist. The objective was to try the RoboRoach preparation on a Chinese Beetle (unidentified, perhaps a dung beetle). Zhuxiang is known for being one of the best examples of a bamboo forest.

We searched for our elusive beetle in the Chinese scenery borne of dreams.

The beetles were found on a distinctive tree that was co-localized with a type of plentiful brown butterfly easy to spot. Both are fond ofthe sap the tree emits. You look for the butterfly, then look for the tree the Butterfly always flies to, and you find your beetle.

We collected about 10 of these beetles, and implanted 3 of them with RoboRoach electrodes. These beetles have an impressively strong exoskeleton, making the surgery a bit of a challenge, but we achieved it.

However, the wires did not hold up to the Beetles’ jaws. The next morning, when we tried to test the RoboRoach circuit, the beetle had cut the wires. The surgical preparation needs a little bit more adaptation to work on this creature, but we left the RoboRoach kit with ZAST…maybe an adventurous Chinese student will continue the work to study the adaptation and motor response properties of this beetle!

We gave many talks to the public, who were very gracious, and we must thank Phyllis, Bing, and our talk translators for doing the challenging job of learning so many new biological terms. Our favorite was- “ulnar nerve” – chî gû shén jin.

The translators taught us two words for the cockroach. There is the formal name “cockroach” which sounds like zháng láng

But there is also an informal word used that translates into “little strong” because, of course, a cockroach is a quite durable creature– which sounds like xiâo qiáng.

The world is full of enthusiastic students and minds who live to unravel the mechanisms of the brain, and we were delighted to meet some of the curious future Neural Engineers in China. The Staff of ZAST, when we parted ways in Shanghia, gave a gift all engineers would treasure – an abacus. The Abacus is now part of our office in the Santiago MakerSpace in Chile, in our growing ganglious network of inventors and scientists spread around the world.