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Breaking Into the Toy Market

STEM Ed Toys of the Future!

BYB’s adventures at Toy Fair 2018

Toy Fair is one of the largest gatherings of toy manufacturers, distributors, and buyers in the world, and in 2018, we threw our hat into the ring! We’ve been at this whole DIY Neuroscience thing in an educational space for almost 9 years, and we thought it was about time to test the waters in the consumer market, and Toy Fair was a great opportunity to do just that: we were in the room with giants like Hasbro and ThinkFun, learning how we could improve the toy factor of our science kits. Our table was situated in the “Launchpad” section of the conference where other companies new to Toy Fair were also showing off their offerings! (Will got a sneak peek at some of the hot new STEM Ed games hitting the shelves this year during his wanderings–just you wait for Killer Snails the Card Game!)

We did a lot of demos, we did presentations for press, and we did what we could to spread the good word: Neuroscience is here, it’s important, and it’s fun! A few local news stations featured us, helping amplify our voice. We demoed some new prototypes, and our stalwart Human-Human Interface was popular as usual. We were in new territory and a lot of people had never heard of us before, so it was a great opportunity to build new relationships and attract new attention.

Zach, our Development Engineer, said, “I enjoyed demoing to people who had never seen our kits before but are part of increasing the amount of STEM education tools.  We received a lot of great feedback from others in the industry about their experiences and issues that we can avoid.  It was also great to test out some of our new/updated products that we are developing.” Zach’s newest developments include the Neuron SpikerBox Pro and Muscle SpikerBox Pro, as well as the Plant SpikerBox, his little leafy baby.

His partner in crime at Toy Fair 2018 was Will, our resident Outreach Coordinator, poet, and maker of schpiels. He’s been getting people to roll their sleeves up for science for a long time now. He said of the show, “I’m pretty used to explaining our work to educators and scientists, so Toy Fair was a totally new experience. I wasn’t sure how non-scientists would react to the gear, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that everyone loved the kits and wanted to try them for themselves! It was exciting to show so many people, for the first time in their lives, real neuroscience experiments and recordings from their brains and nervous systems!”

Toy Fair was a big success for us. We tried on a toymaker’s hat to see if it fit, and who knows what the future will bring?

The Taste Preferences of Fruit Flies

Hello everyone! It’s a been over a month since my project began on studying the diet and attempting taste manipulation of the Drosophila melanogaster.

Before my experiments could begin I faced many software and hardware issues. The flyPAD itself is an extremely thin 0.6mm PCB board so every slight bend of it can result in a breaking of the soldered connections with each channel’s circuits.

I transfer flies by sucking them up…don’t worry there’s a cotton stopper. Human Sips.

In order to change my flies’ taste perception, the light-sensitive proteins which were inserted into their ‘sweet’ tasting neurons had to be stimulated by an intense red light. For a proper response, this light stimulation has to happen almost exactly when the flies take sips of the target food. To make this happen, a code was programmed into Bonsai so that an LED is turned on nearly instantaneously to when food is touched by a fly, triggered by a change in capacitance between the electrodes. This is how the flies’ taste neurons are activated at the same instant they sip certain foods to influence their food choice preference.

The instant the fly’s proboscis (mouth) touches food, intense red light shines

To get to the finalized rig I use today, I experienced firsthand just how much debugging and problem-solving is involved in research. Below is a pictorial formula of how I got to my final experimental setup:

Got my flyPAD

Integrate circuit and solder under a microscope… this is what was breaking every time the .6mm boar bent… whch was all the time

Creating circuit and code for LEDs to sink up with each channel

I soldered a shield for easy LED plugin

LEDs set up with flyPAD

soldered LEDs to their drivers, which increase the light intensity        

Another arduino programmed to pulse 100 Hz light to give flies recovery time of 900 ms

Painted acrylic to avoid unwanted light penetration of neighboring LEDs

The fruit!

The bonsai workflow for LED stimulation

Over many hours of adjusting my setup and learning how to insert the food, I finally got everything working so that experiments could get underway.

To see if the flies’ taste can be changed, I had to determine what their natural food preference was. I chose banana and avocado to compare. The cumulative number of sips showed banana was preferred over avocado, as avocados have almost no sugar in them.

To see if food choice preference can be altered, LEDs were activated upon contact with avocado. This fired the gr5a sweet neurons in the flies.

As predicted, the light stimulation successfully activated the flies’ sweet neurons to alter what they perceive as sweet tasting.

To verify these results, I ran a positive and negative control. The positive, showing the desired effect which is expected from the independent variable, was the proboscis extension (seen with the green arrow) from a gr5a fly upon stimulation from the 625nm red LED light.

Fly 1

Fly 2

As for the negative control, which does not produce the desired outcome of the experiment, I put gr5a flies that had not been feeding on all trans-retinal, under the same LED treatment targeted on avocado. All trans-retinal must be ingested to activate the proteins in the flies’ neurons, otherwise light stimulation will not fire the neurons. As expected, these flies still preferred the more sugary banana over the bland avocado.

Now that I know that the alteration of Drosophila taste preference is possible, I plan to study the nutrients within the flies’ diet.

It’s easy to eat sugar, but when offered your favourite sweet snack and a healthy food, it’s hard to eat what you know is better for you. I will create this scenario for my flies. Specifically, I am interested to see if the flies will eat protein after being deprived of it, even when a tasty, sugary apple is also up for grabs.

When deprived of protein, it has been found in the past that females will eat more protein when offered it again as opposed to males since they have to produce eggs. I want to see if this is still the case with natural foods rich in protein. I hypothesize that the flies will still prefer to eat a more sugary food as opposed to the nutrient they are deprived of. If this is the case, I will use optogenetics once again to see if I can make them eat the food they require the most. Are flies’ instincts to eat the nutrients they require stronger than their pickiness of taste? This is an interesting comparison to humans – as so many of us are more than willing to indulge in decadent desserts rather than eating our veggies any day of the week. Will optogenetics one day make its way into the human realm to revolutionize eating and health forever?

Thank you for taking a look at my post! I can’t wait to see what response I get out of my flies in the near future.

Recording the Behavior of Squid Hatchlings

Introduction to the project

Hi, everyone! Last week marked the halfway point of my time as a fellow here at Backyard Brains!  Recently, I’ve succeeded in building a rig and recording video footage of my Squid Hatchlings! I’m excited because it means I can start gathering quantifiable data! The squiddos have kept me pretty busy during these weeks, and they have been so fascinating to study (and photograph obsessively, like the proud parent that I am).

The main goal of my summer project is to document and begin to understand the behavior of squid hatchlings. Mostly I have been investigating how they complete the complex task of navigating away from where they’re born to seek prey and space to grow up. From previous studies, we suspect that they use their vision to help them navigate because they tend to swim towards sources of light, especially when they are very young. Since we already know a lot about what kind of light exists at the different depths, being able to specifically quantify the strength of their preference for different colors and intensities of light would help us understand where they like to be in the ocean at different ages.

In order to study how their light preferences change over time, I first had to figure out how to separate the eggs into individual containers that could still be aerated from a single pump. The containers needed to be able to let in oxygenated water, but keep hatchlings inside once they were born. The solution was a series of seven water bottle covered in tiny pinholes which rest in a bucket of water. As long as I check them regularly, I always know the age of a hatchling in any given bottle.

Home sweet home.

Next, I needed to write the computer software that could track the squid when I filmed them reacting to different environmental conditions. Since my camera and the background of the tank are stationary when I film, the solution was pretty simple. I break down the video into frames and find the average image over time to figure out what the background looks like. Then, I remove the background from each frame, apply some filters and am left with an image of just the squid! This method is called foreground detection and it is a commonly used method in image processing and computer vision. Once I have this simplified image, I can calculate the population of squid that are in each segment of their tank and see how they move over time. (Click the Gif’s to see the sweet action!)


Next, I needed to build an experimental setup in order to actually test the squid with variable conditions. After several failed attempts, I ended up with an acrylic box covered in black paper that has a hole for the iPhone to take a video through. This way, the only light that the squid are exposed to while I record them is the light that I produce and control. At first, I wrongly assumed that I should be testing squid with light from the top (since the sun is above them in their natural environment), and was getting very… boring results. Besides their sense of light, the squid also have a sense of gravity and are negatively geotactic, meaning that they like to stay at the surface of the water. So the squid in the dark would be at the surface of the water and I’d turn on a light and they’d just… stay at the surface. I wasn’t sure how to quantify this and I knew that these weren’t the results I wanted, since there was no differentiation of their reactions. I felt exactly like this:

My exact face after four hours of attempting to get results… I brought them outside the lab to see if the fresh air would help them? I just got soaked in the rain and still saw nothing interesting…

Finally, I had the idea to put the LEDs on the sides of the tank to test their reactions. I wouldn’t be forcing them to swim away from the surface, but I could hopefully still see them track the light. It worked! I could finally see the squid making an active effort to follow the light and can quantify their reactions to it.

Now I am in the process of designing the exact experiment that I want to study consistently across all groups of squid as they age. While I have been exploring and contemplating, I’ve seen some pretty cool effects. It seems that young squid (within 24 hours of hatching) react extremely strongly to low light levels (around 100 lux) and much less strongly to very high light levels (around 600 lux).

Two recordings from samples at <12 hours since hatching. The x-axis here represents the region of the tank where section 1 is the far left (in this case, closest to the ligt) and section 7 is the far right. The y-axis shows the average percentage of the population that can be found in the section over the course of a 2-minute video.

In testing some older squid, I’ve also observed that they don’t seem to react to red light. Perhaps they don’t see it at all, at the least they don’t care about it. It’s not conclusive yet, and I’d like to test more groups, but you can see the graph of their reaction below.

I’ve also seen that the older squid seem to react strongly to very strong intensities of light, especially compared to the younger squid. This might provide some interesting insight into the life of the squid and where they live in the ocean at different ages.

I think that that is all for now! After recording some more data I hope to have some awesome graphs to share with you that show how the squid react to low light, high light, and colored light as they age! With that information, hopefully we will be able to piece together the narrative of the early life of the loligo pealeii and improve our understanding of their abilities and behaviors.