Backyard Brains Logo

Neuroscience for Everyone!

+1 (855) GET-SPIKES (855-438-7745)

items ()

BYB Fellows Present at Research Symposium

The Fellows! Missing: Ilya and Nathan, they already had started presenting!

Today our Summer Research Fellows “snuck in” and presented their summer work at a University of Michigan, Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) symposium! Over the two sessions our fellows presented their work and rigs to judges, other students, to university faculty, and community members. Some of the fellows are seasoned poster designers, but others had to learn quickly as they all rushed to get their posters printed in time! As our motto goes, we think it’s a shame that science is locked up in labs, and we pride ourselves on being able to take our DIY rigs wherever we go, so of course we encouraged the fellows to bring as much of their rigs as possible to show off in person. Science is much cooler when you can hold and see it in person.

Poster presentations are close to our heart here at Backyard Brains… You might be surprised that our company started out as a poster presentation! The “$100 Spike!” was the poster which launched a thousand ships. Our founders Tim and Greg developed the original SpikerBox as a passion project and presented it at a “Society for Neuroscience Conference” poster session. They pinned up their poster, tacked a hundred dollar bill to the board, and showed everyone who would listen to live action potentials on their first-generation SpikerBox. People expressed interest in purchasing the SpikerBox and Backyard Brains was born!

We’re proud to see our fellows continuing the tradition of creating affordable, DIY neuroscience experiments. Check out the photos and posters below, and be on the lookout for more blog posts from our fellows as they finish their write ups!



Recording from the Visual Neurons of a Dragonfly

Changing Course

In my last post, I talked about how I was essentially replicating the Paloma article (previously linked) in a DIY manner. This is no longer the case.

The primary goal at this point is to record from the TSDN tracts, located on the ventral portion of the dragonfly’s “neck” area (seen as two white lines in the photo), in a way that the presentation of a stimulus will elicit a selective response (hence the name target-selective descending neurons); that is, waving a dot left to right would get a response, but right to left would not. I have actually achieved this with a few dragonflies already, but right now instead of analyzing the data, I am working on improving my prep so that the dragonflies can be released more easily after recording.

As for the stimulus, I have been using flash cards with various sizes of dots to imitate a “fly”, as well as gradients. The laser rig idea has been scratched, and the newly revived suggestion of an iPad program is being considered. That will be tested soon and hopefully by the next post we have a working prototype of the stimulus that we end up with. Right now though, the hand-drawn dot works well enough to hear those pops from the spikerbox.

Directional Discrimination… White Event Markers are Left to Right stimulation… Orange, Right to Left

Hard-Won Wisdom

I have definitely improved my catching and prep techniques. First of all, the dragonflies in the arboretum tend to be in tall, grassy fields rather than along the river. There are hundreds upon hundreds of damselflies along the water, but rarely a dragonfly. Since catching them is very time consuming, we put out a local bounty for dragonflies. This past weekend, someone brought me in 11 dragonflies that they had caught. It was a busy weekend after that point.

Second, anesthetizing them in a refrigerator is good for storage, but not nearly long enough to keep them still during recording. I usually have to put them under ice water for about five minutes if they start moving around.  As you can see in the earlier image above, the dragonfly is stuck to a popsicle stick with epoxy and further held down by silly putty. This setup is going to change again so that the dragonfly can be released more easily afterward – the (careful) removal of the glue doesn’t destroy any tissue, but residues might make it harder for them to fly. Also, during the prep, I shine a bright light on the dragonfly. This is essential. Without the bright light, there isn’t enough light reflecting off of the paper stimulus for the dragonfly to see it (cons of working in a basement), so there isn’t a response. The popsicle stick lies on half of a petri dish in order to elevate the dragonfly. The popsicle stick hangs off of the edge, and the dragonfly’s head hangs off of the edge of the popsicle stick, all so that the dorsal (back) side of its eyes have a clear view of the stimuli presented to it. I am still testing to see if it also needs to hang off of the desk to give it full vision below it (it is upside down, so “below” refers to the dorsal side). In the next week I hope to have perfected my methodology so I can start analyzing my data and begin writing up the results.


Sometimes Research is Fun!

I have done some pretty cool things with Backyard Brains these past few weeks. We went to see a Tigers game in the city, which was great fun, but they have nothing on the energy at Wrigley Field… For the Fourth of July, we took part in a parade to spread awareness about the company. I made huge dragonfly wings out of paper mache, and spent more time than I would have liked to painting and detailing them… I had a lot of fun talking to people about the company and getting the crowd enthusiastic about neuroscience. Some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had working here has been talking to others about research, whether that was demoing my experiment at Tech Trek, getting stopped by arboretum visitors who are curious about my catches, or unexpectedly meeting people who use BYB products. I am really impressed with the connections we build as a result of our outreach.

The Electrophysiology of Dragonflies

About Me

Hi everyone, I’m Jaimie. I just graduated from Boston’s Northeastern University in Behavioral Neuroscience. My academic background is in biology, but I picked up some engineering and coding skills through previous lab research. Originally I’m from the Chicago area, so I’m pretty familiar with the Midwest atmosphere, though I had never been to Ann Arbor before this internship. I brought my ferret, Taz, with me too. I’m really enjoying working at Backyard Brains so far; my project has been a lot of fun, and my coworkers are great to hang out with! I haven’t done much exploring of the city yet, although I went with Joud, Nathan, and Ilya to the University of Michigan Museum of Art. There were some really cool performance pieces there, so if you’re in the area, you should check it out!

Taz! He spends most of the day sleeping in his hammock… but when he’s awake, it’s non-stop playtime

My Project

I am working on a continuation of Patricia Aguilar’s dragonfly investigation from last summer. Dragonflies have very complex flight patterns, as each wing can move individually (rather than as a pair with its contralateral counterpart). Further, they are able to intercept their prey mid-flight with 95% accuracy. This leads to some questions about how their behavior is possible. Essentially, dragonflies’ neurons in their eyes connect to their wings in a reflex circuit, rather than processing the visual information first. This allows them to make sharp turning maneuvers very quickly in order to follow and catch their prey. These important neurons, 8 on each side, lie in tracts along the neck of the dragonfly. They are called target-selective descending neurons (TSDNs). My primary aim is to record from these neurons to identify the visual receptive fields of each one, similar to the study performed by Paloma Gonzalez-Bellido et al, here. Right now, I am in the process of weighing the pros and cons of various visual stimuli and experimental methods done by Robert Olberg (an author on the linked paper), though I will likely be doing something similar to Patricia’s laser rig. Stay tuned for updates on this.

A closer look at Dragonfly nerve bundles

Catching Dragonflies

Last Thursday, I spent the day in the arboretum trying to catch dragonflies. I learned quite a few lessons about what to wear (dress to prevent bites, not stay cool!) and how to find them. Dragonflies eat mosquitos, midges, and almost any other smaller insect they can find. Mosquitos lay their eggs in still water, so dragonflies tend to be found near their food sources. The banks of a river or a marsh are ideal places to look. I was using a net and alternated between swinging the net like a bat (Swing method) and going from above to trap it to the ground (Pancake method). My end result was a catch of 3 damselflies and 1 unknown insect (possibly a wasp?). Note that the pictures are after anesthetizing the insects in the refrigerator overnight. Damselflies are tricky in that they look and act similarly to dragonflies, but upon closer inspection, there are slight differences; they have thinner bodies compared to dragonflies, and instead of displaying their wings when perched at rest, they keep them together. I recognized that these were damselflies before catching them, and though I can’t technically use the data I get from these bugs, I can practice recording from their neurons and improve on my surgery setup. I’ll be sure to show the final setup and materials I used when I have a successful recording.


???? #Whatsthisbug, some kind of wasp?

Quick Update: I tested the recording rig on a Damselfly! Now to catch some Dragonflies…

Testing The Recording Rig

I’d love to hear from you if you have any suggestions or inquiries. Thanks for reading!