“How bad does it hurt?” It’s not for nothing that doctors usually struggle to ascertain our level of pain. It depends not only on how bad we report it to be, but also on the amount of pain we think we feel.
But are there reasons behind it that would begin to decipher our (in)ability to cope with or even verbalize the dreaded sensation? According to a recent collaborative study led by Dr. Elia Valentini from the University of Essex, there’s more to this phenomenon than a mere lack of tools that would accurately quantify exactly how much pain there is in an “ouch.”
What Does Our Brain Do While We Hurt?
So far, science held a more or less persisting view that a surefire way to quantify our levels of pain – much like any other physical sensation or state – was to measure our brain’s electrical activity. When you’re sitting and idly scrolling on your phone, your brain waves will likely hover around 12 Hz. Start dozing off and these alpha waves will slide back in intensity to theta (4-8 Hz) or even delta (1-4 Hz) if you were to fall asleep.
But if a very angry tweet kicks you out of your zen, your brain waves are likely to surge into the beta sphere, anywhere from 22 to 38 Hz. Finally, if you hop into the kitchen and stub your toe on the way, your brain activity will shoot through the roof and exhibit a very high level of oscillations, up to 80 Hz.
Or so the theory went!
The study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology paints a more nuanced picture. Different brains, it suggests, show remarkably varied responses to the same type and amount of pain. This leads the researchers to believe that each of us have our own and unique “pain fingerprint.” To gauge what our brain does against what it says it does, the researchers took two groups of willing subjects and put them through two datasets. The first group of willing participants was zapped with a laser and touched within a 2-week span, whereas the other only only got the laser stimulus. All the while, the participants’ response was measured on two fronts. Their EEG was recorded with a focus on the rapid gamma brain waves. Three seconds after the stimulus was applied, the participants were asked to verbally rate their feeling of pain from no pain (0) to maximum pain they were willing to tolerate (10).
The most intriguing finding? We may experience and describe a stimulus as painful in a certain way and to a certain extent, but the gamma waves will not necessarily play along. In other words, the waves that have been associated with pain for so long will actually vary significantly between individuals. But where they do show in an individual, they will be remarkably stable, consistent and reproducible.
Over a dozen busy bees, 5 research projects, 4 hot weeks of July, countless data, iterations and coffee cups, one book of experiments to soak it all up and present to the wider audience — and the Backyard Brains 2023 US-Serbian Summer Research Fellowship rounds off. The result will hit the shelves this fall, with the new, Serbian edition of our book “How Your Brain Works” containing brand new experiments that our team started working on.
But if you expect to see a bunch of cockroaches, worms, moths and bees and other invertebrates buzzing around Belgrade’s Center for Promotion of Science lab makerspace where we spent the month, you’re in for a surprise. This time, we ventured into two completely different, even opposite realms, hoping to eventually tie them together. One is the realm of single-celled creatures who don’t seem to be hindered or bothered by their lack of brain. The other lies behind our all-powerful brain and borders on philosophy of awareness. What is consciousness and attention? How do we think what reality is — and how do we share it with others? Finally, is there a way for these two realms to inform and complement each other?
This year’s cohort was small but diverse, composed of three undergrads who flew in from the University of Michigan and four Serbian undergrads from the Universities of Belgrade and Novi Sad. One of the greatest values was the wide variety of backgrounds that came together: from neuroscience to electrical engineering, psychology, molecular biology and computer science.
How the SpikerBox Revolutionized K12 STEM Education…
and just what is a SpikerBox?
Backyard Brains exists today because of a once-lofty goal: To turn a $40,000+ rack of graduate-level electronics into a $100 kit that students could use in the classroom to perform real, hands-on neuroscience experiments. A decade later, we have developed four lines of products that can get you involved in many aspects of neuroscience!
Enter the SpikerBox! SpikerBoxes are our name for the educational electronics we developed, a low-cost bioamplifier that can record “spikes,” or action potentials. Spikes are the universal signals which bring life to thought, sensation, movement, behavior, actions, reactions… everything that makes us living creatures!
The SpikerBox: Students say Yes to Neuroscience!
Thanks to SpikerBoxes, more than 45,000 people have seen real, live action potentials, either from their own body, somebody else’s, or from an insect or plant! And those are just the people we’ve counted… Since we began shipping in 2009, nearly 13,000 SpikerBoxes have hit the streets, bringing neuroscience to students, hobbyists, and researchers on every continent and in over 80 countries (Recently, we sent our first kit ever to Cyprus!)
Teachers we work with are excited to bring hands-on science experiments into the classroom. We offer free educational materials that pair with all of our kits, and we are developing curricula to help bring neuroscience into specific programs like Next Generation Science Standards and Project Lead The Way! Coming soon, we are expanding our Teacher Portal to help you share Backyard Brains with your students. In addition, we developed a free, open-source spike recording software (Called… you guessed it, SpikeRecorder) that lets you use the tech you already have (Chromebooks, iPads, PC, Android Phones) to record and analyze the signals your SpikerBox is recording. Our SpikerBoxes come in a few flavors, depending on the signal you want to read.
First off, the Neuron SpikerBox. This is the SpikerBox that launched 10,000 ships. Our O.G. product. Before we were a company, we were simply a goal: to create an affordable neuroscience kit to increase accessibility for younger learners, and that goal manifested itself as the Neuron SpikerBox. It allows students to record from the nervous systems of invertebrates, like cockroaches, crickets, and grasshoppers, and perform experiments to learn about how neurons and the nervous system work.
It is also an important segue into using animal models and model organisms to learn about our own nervous systems! We wouldn’t have models without model organisms, as many developments in neuroscience were made by studying the nervous systems of invertebrates and other, relatively “simple,” organisms. It is also an opportunity to talk about ethics: our cockroach prep for the Neuron SpikerBox is non-lethal, but it is invasive. A good conversation to have with any budding scientist is the measured, societal cost-benefit analysis of doing experiments like these.
What can a student learn by performing experiments with the Neuron SpikerBox? They will learn about neurons, action potentials, and how these spikes of electricity become meaningful signals to the organisms in which they are present.
Our Neuron SpikerBox is a fantastic learning tool, but it is also a powerful research tool. We have published several scientific articles featuring data which we recorded from grasshoppers, dragonflies, and other creatures using our Neuron SpikerBox.
After we perfected our bioamplifier for model organisms, we wanted to get a little more personal. After all, what better way to learn about science than to learn how your own body works? The Muscle SpikerBox records spikes in the form of Electromyograms (EMGs). EMGs are recordings of the electrical activity in our muscles! When our brain sends a signal to our muscles to move, there is an electrical synapse where the nerve meets the muscle, and our sensors record that! Used in medicine, sports science, and physiology, EMGs are an exciting way to introduce students to practical science where they are the experiment! For example, a great first experiment is recording varying rates of muscle fatigue. In fact, we had a fifth grader win her district Science Fair by comparing muscle fatigue between her left and right arms!
This SpikerBox gets to the real heart of Neuroscience. It is a multi-functional bioamplifier that focuses on your involuntary nervous system, the automatic responses that keep us going. The heartbeat is the electrical signal that most students are already familiar with through pop culture. Many of them could roughly draw what a heartbeat signal should look like, and they know a flatline is, well, very bad. Drawing from this intuitive knowledge, it’s exciting to show students their heart rates, explain to them what exactly that spikey shape they’ve seen on TV means, and teach them about the electrical impulses which keep our pulse up.
Then, there is the Brain. With this dual-function SpikerBox, you can have students see and experiment with their actual brain waves or Electroencephalograms (EEGs). No, I’m not talking about EMG artefacts or some cheesy “Brain Power” game. Our intro experiment with this kit has students see the activity of their vision center, the occipital lobe. When your eyes are open, they are processing a lot of activity, but when they are closed, that part of the brain calms down. Here we can see Alpha Waves, kind of like the brain’s “on-hold” pattern, emerge. Our co-founders never saw EEG in real life until after they had already received their doctorates. Just let that sink in. Elementary schoolers today have access to tech that was too inconvenient to demonstrate to graduate students just several years ago! Talk about a NeuroRevolution!
Finally, we have our SpikerBox that is harnessing the power of electrophysiology in uncharted territory: plants! When we ask students about what makes us alive, many answer “brains.” When asked to expand on that, many say the fact that we can move around. But what about the Venus Flytrap, a plant that can move in response to stimulation, without an ostensible brain? With this SpikerBox we can unlock the secret electrical language used in plants, demonstrating fundamental neuroscience principles in an unconventional model organism, and spreading the wonder of understanding how living creatures work!
The SpikerBoxes are our way of making advanced neuroscience accessible to the masses. To facilitate this and to cut user costs, all of our experiments, software, and educational materials are available for free! Check out our experiments and figure out which SpikerBox is right for you, your classroom, or your backyard science lab! What will you discover?