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Backyard Brains welcomes 2019 University of Santiago interns

Backyard Brains is now in its second year of interns from the University of Santiago de Chile (affectionately called Usach). Last year we had a project recording the ganglia of snails – and this we will continue our voyage in the world of invertebrates with an old favorite and a new favorite. Cockroaches and Clams.

The ElectrocardioCLAM

Hi, my name is Eduardo Isla, and I am in my final year as a student of biochemistry working at both USACH and UChile (Universidad de Chile). I am completing my undergraduate thesis right now as well as working for two months at the Backyard Brains Chile office. My thesis is in a quite different area (virology) working on epitranscriptomics of HIV-2. In my spare time I like to play MMORPG games as well as explore outdoor photography. 

A lot of high school students like Backyard Brains’ Neuropharmacology experiment, as you can indirectly study synaptic activity in crickets, but it is time for an upgrade. First, a little bit about neurotransmitters

Did you know that neurotransmitters were discovered working on frog hearts? Everything began in 1921, when an Austrian scientist named Otto Loewi discovered the first neurotransmitter. In his experiment, he used two frog hearts. Heart 1 was still connected to the vagus nerve, and Heart 1 was placed in a chamber that was filled with Ringers solution. This chamber was connected to a second chamber that contained Heart 2. So, fluid from chamber 1 could flow into chamber 2. Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve (which was attached to Heart 1) caused Heart 1 to slow down its heart rate. Loewi observed that after a delay, Heart 2 also slowed down. From this experiment, Loewi hypothesized that electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve released a chemical into the fluid of chamber 1 that flowed into chamber 2. He called this chemical “Vagusstoff”. We now know this chemical as the neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. It is also interesting to know English scientist Henry Hallet Dale had previously isolated acetylcholine. So, they both shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1936.

For the Backyard Brains neuropharmacology upgrade I will use some Clams, yes Clams. We eat them, but they are animals too, and believe or not they have a heart. So, I’m trying to adapt Loewi’s experiments into much simpler animals, easier to access/buy and less traumatic to work on. These experiments consist of using the Backyard Brains Heart and Brain SpikerBox to make recordings of electrocardiograms on clam hearts and the effects of different compounds. For this, first of all I need to record an electrocardiogram of the heart of clams. Afterwards, I will then treat them with various compounds to attempt to alter the heart rate. I also need to ensure that the record that we actually obtain is EKG and not movement of the electrodes. In these first few days I am trying to optimize the preparation, opening the clam while keeping the cardiovascular system intact.

The Quantified RoboRoach

Hi, my name is Claudio Moreno, and I am also in my final year working at USach in the lab of Neuroscience. I am doing my thesis in ion channel physiology, studying TRPM8 channels. TRP channels are the body’s temperature transducers, and TRPM8 is responsible for the feeling of  coldness. In Chile we get cranky when the temperature gets below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (I know, nothing like Michigan), and we can thank our TRPM8 channels for that.

When not studying TRPM8 channels I enjoy going playing video games and guitar. I’ve being playing guitar for 13 years and it has been one of the best things I have done to get my mind distracted during moments of high stress. I also like to travel to different cities and countries. I have travelled to many cities here on Chile (my country), and it’s really beautiful, so if you have an opportunity to come here, trust me, you won’t regret it.

The RoboRoach is one of Backyard Brains’ original inventions where you can control cockroach locomotion by electrically stimulating the antenna, but, strangely, Backyard Brains has never systematically measured the adaptation rate. Until now. To do this experiment we are doing a bunch of RoboRoach surgeries, so we can have a high enough sample size to compare sensory adaptation rate.

Once a RoboRoach is recovered from the surgery, we can start to see if we can control our RoboRoach and measure turning responses with time! And for that we built a lego tower, which has a floating ball the cockroach walks on, along with an optical mouse to read the floating ball’s movements. When the antenna neurons are activated with electrical stimuli, they will send this electrical information (called spikes) to the cockroach brain, stimulating the neural-motor reactions. The cockroach will change direction, and we can measure this change.

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This contraption allows us to measure precisely the turning of the cockroach in response to stimulation of the antenna, so we can see how it adapts over time. Now it is time to collect the data and finally say with some degree of certainty the adaptation rates across cockroaches. Like all kinds of animals with a central neural system, you can expect that neurons can adapt to a stimulus (which Backyard Brains has anecdotally observed many times in the RoboRoach). Now it is time to quantify! I am starting to get skilled at the surgery, and below you can see my first successful antenna nerve recording!


Citizen Science Sleepaway Camp: BYB Visits Campus Party Brazil

Before I spill the Feijoada about Backyard Brains’ awesome experience at Campus Party Brazil, I should mention that I firmly believe that education can save the world. I should also mention that in regards to our brains, according to neuroscience research, your education lasts your entire life.

I’ll cut to the chase: my recent Brazilian adventure with Backyard Brains has inspired me to write this to promote lifelong education and moreover, to remind you that learning can be enjoyable and even thrilling. It certainly doesn’t have to be bound to a classroom. Keep in mind that evolutionarily speaking, survival did not depend on absorbing curated lesson plans 8 hours a day in a classroom, but upon chaotic and reactive information-gathering experiences.

At birth our brains develop at an extremely rapid rate. Babies form new neurons at a rate of 250,000 every minute! By the time a child is three years old, their brain will reach 80% of adult volume and create close to 1000 trillion connections between billions of neurons. There is a prevailing myth about the brain that after a certain age we stop forming new neurons. This has been dispelled by current research and it’s clear that the brain has an amazing ability to change throughout life. This is called neuroplasticity and it’s the brain’s ability for our neurons to rewire and add new neurons in regions involved in learning throughout our lifetimes. Believe it or not, these new neurons show the same plasticity as seen in the rapidly developing brain of newborns. On top of that, the adult brain uses about 25% of the body’s metabolic energy despite being on average only 2% of our entire body weight. So considering that a quarter of your energy going to supporting you brain, which has this amazing adaptability to develop and optimize throughout life, why not continually take advantage of your own brain’s superpower of learning?

So, what if we threw super-fun, non-stop parties that were also packed full of learning opportunities? What if these events ran non-stop for up to a week straight? What if we invited world leaders of technology, entertainment, innovation, creativity and science to give inspiring keynote speeches and exciting, intimate workshops? Would the world become a better place?

No need to ponder any further: this type of forward-thinking, multidisciplinary educational party already exists! It’s called Campus Party and Backyard Brains had a blast earlier this year at Campus Party Brazil!

The very first Campus Party to happen in all of Asia is coming soon. This July 6th – 8th, join us at Campus Party Singapore! Backyard Brains will be there putting on two workshops each day. Come learn about neuroscience with us through fun hands-on experiments. You can create your own cyborg cockroach in the RoboRoach Workshop and control your friend’s mind in the Human Interface Workshop. We hope to see you there!!
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BYB wins Hearts and Brains at CES

The Consumer Electronics Show floods Las Vegas annually with nearly 200,000 visitors and exhibitors, and for the first time, Backyard Brains joined the likes of Intel, Google, IBM, and other giants by attending as exhibitors and hosting our own booth!

The trip was fun, but certainly wasn’t without its challenges. Upon arriving in Vegas, our team realized that we were missing something very important… a sign for our exhibit. Oops. Consequently, we spent the evening before the first day of CES hunting for arts and crafts supplies (harder to find than you’d think…) and painting a new sign! We think it turned out pretty well, and it definitely feels very on-brand for a do-it-yourself company.

Our team did demos and talked to interested geeks for four straight days, and it was a blast! We asked people who had never heard of us before to roll up their sleeves for science. The hands shaken, the electrodes used, the business cards traded–it was all a blur of new connections. In the past, we’ve typically only attended scientific conferences, like the Society for Neuroscience conference and the Michigan Science Teachers Association conference, where we’ve been pretty established. So this was our first dip into the consumer world, and a lot of people were excited about the tech and the educational opportunities it provides!

Our RoboRoach proved to be incredibly novel and intriguing for attendees at CES… We didn’t double check with every booth, but we’re fairly certain we were showing off the only real cyborg at CES! We had constant crowds, and even private tours showing up to take a look at our RoboRoach, the world’s first commercially available cyborg!

We hope you enjoyed CES… we know we did! Whether you are new to BYB or are a long-time fan, we sincerely thank you for taking the time to stop by our booth and participate in some hands-on neuroscience! This was a new conference for us and we were not sure what to expect… turns out we were so slammed with crowds that people had to try multiple times to get in and see demos! Thanks for your enthusiasm and support, we’ll definitely be back next year! In the meantime, be sure to keep checking the blog and wander over to our Products Page to see what we’re up to!