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Amateur Scientist Tries to Hack Human-Human Interface to Treat His Own Spinal Cord Injury

Amateur scientist Gianni Garulli in his lab, trying to hack Human-Human Interface to treat his spinal cord injury

We’ve been doing it for 10 years already: connecting two humans so that one uses their own brain signals to control the other one’s limb. But how about hooking up two limbs of a single human so that one limb can control the other?

This is exactly what Gianni Garulli, a hardware and firmware developer from Lonato del Garda, Italy, tried to do. Having suffered a spinal cord injury that affected his legs, one more heavily than the other, he was on the lookout for treatment, even if it required some serious tinkering.

So when his daughter Elisa came across our booth at the FENS 2022 in Paris, one thing caught her eye: the Human-Human Interface (HHI) and the idea of neuroplasticity. Christmas was nearing and with it, their old tradition of spending holiday time doing projects together. As it happened, the perfect Christmas gift was there for the taking.

Elisa’s own background helped too. As a PhD student at Charité University Hospital, Berlin, she studies neurotechnology and holds an MSc in biotech. Moreover, she used to be part of O.W.L. (Open Wet Lab), a biohacking association committed to bringing science out of labs and making it more accessible to everyone. And that, reader, may ring a bell or two.

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For the Love of Bugs: New Peer-Reviewed Paper on Open Citizen Science

ERG SpikerBox prototype
ERG recording configuration

We could be living through the 6th mass extinction, but there’s encouraging news: the preservation of insect biodiversity begins in our backyards. And it doesn’t need all of us to be Jane Goodalls. All we need is a cheap ERG bioamplifier, a smartphone, some patience, and as little (or as much!) scientific training as we can stomach!

This idea is the basis of the new, peer-reviewed Open Citizen Science research that recently got out in the Resarch Idas and Outcomes (RIO) journal in a collab with Wikimedia Fellowship. The paper’s two-pronged approach first takes the scientific expertise possessed by the few, kicks it off the ivory tower and diffuses among community members, teaching them how to capture insect electroretinograms (ERGs) across their local species using our open-source ERG SpikerBox, which doesn’t exist yet as its prototyping is part of this project. A mobile app is also being developed to help with data collection.

These newly empowered citizen scientists will then collect data on insect populations, catalog it and turn it into open, universally accessible knowledge that’s going to be curated on Wikimedia. It’s our motto extended: neuroscience for everyone, by everyone!

But what’s the link between the electrical activity of insect eyes and preservation of their biodiversity?

By studying insect ERGs and other parameters, we can learn about the health of their environment, impacts of global climate change and local pollution. “ERG signals can be used as a readout for insect health as well as a physiological fingerprint of the insect,” explains Étienne Serbe-Kamp, the paper’s first author and our very own Senior Scientist.

Capturing honeybee ERG as part of Open Citizen Science initiative
Honeybee with a recording electrode attached to her eye

He harbors much hope for the project. “Thanks to Backyard Brains, I was given the opportunity to get exposed to Citizen Science in all its facets and possibilities. Prototyping ERGo! was a wonderful process and I think we learned a lot from this first phase and hope that it will turn into a broader scale Citizen Science movement,” he tells us. The project’s short-term importance is for these newly blossomed citizen scientists to understand the scientific rationale and method. In the long run, we’d all get the world’s biggest ERG library for many insects worldwide.

Visual sensitivities of bees vs humans
Visual sensitivities of bees vs. humans

Openness and democratization is one side of the project. The other is inclusion! The goal is to help not only raise awareness but also increase participation on the local level, among communities that are traditionally underrepresented in science yet are among the first to directly feel the impact of environmental catastrophe. To test the feasibility of non-scientists doing ERG experiments, the team worked with students of the Pasadena Unified School District High School.

While working on the pilot, the paper’s co-author Dan Pollak, a PhD student from Caltech and our Senior Fellow, felt a particularly acute aspect of what inclusion means and just how much it’s needed in a community. Right next to Caltech, there’s the PCC (Pasadena City College), a community college with a host of highly dedicated and talented educators and students. Caltech has it all: a stellar international reputation complemented with generous amounts of grant money every year.

And yet, many locals look at the PCC as their own, an institution that is more accessible and that uplifts them. “My main goal with this project was to give some students from public high schools an excuse to stand out in their applications to college and beyond by doing one simple thing: putting the word Caltech on their resume. I see this initiative and this publication as a trial run for more more community building, more substantial initiatives, and hopefully more impact in my community,” Dan tells us.

In a way, he made it his mission to address academic exclusion, operating at the point where neuroscience meets the humanities and begins to tackle societal justice, rendering itself political. As any other huge and complex aim, it begins with baby steps that often only require redistribution of existing resources, as well as someone to connect a few dots and make it happen. For example, the Pasadena high school participants didn’t have laptops they needed to do experiments. But someone, somewhere had them, and someone else was able and willing to pay for them. Dan turned a couple of stones and found cheap, unused laptops on the Caltech Marketplace, and it turned out that Caltech’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach was happy to pay for them. And so the students got their laptops, along with Backyard Brains kits customized for each of their projects!

The Caltech-swag-swathed BYB kits

He also highlights the role of two more people who were crucial to the efforts: Dr. Zeynep Turan, who helped with media and documentation, as well as Jahel Guardado, graduate student at NYU and a Pasadena local whose perspective as a woman of color in STEM was and will remain invaluable for the participants.

Bottom line, “There’s a bug on your phone” just got a whole new meaning! And thanks to this bug, citizen scientists, nature enthusiasts or merely engaged members of any local community around the globe can help conserve biodiversity, of which bugs and insects in general are a vital aspect.


Apply Now for Brain Awareness Week Outreach Grants – Cerebrate the Brain!

brain awareness week grants

Are you a member of an organization or institution committed to celebrating the wonders of the brain and bringing them from academic heights down to your local community?

If yes, now is the time to apply for Brain Awareness Week (BAW) Outreach Grants for US and Canada! Grantees will be awarded up to $1,500 that they can use to organize events and spread the love for Citizen Neuroscience to kids, adults, budding scientists, and just about any curious soul.

Brain Awareness Week Grants
Last year’s outreach event accross the Northwest: NW Noggin, an organization of brain enthusiasts, amazed kids with our very own Human-Human Interface.

Who’s Eligible for These Grants?

Any or all partners of the Dana Foundation are eligible to apply for these funds. Partnership is free but you will need to cover the cost of organizing the event. All the more reason to try and get the award to cut down on your costs!

Take a look at the list below and see if you fit any of these types of organizations:

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