I may have just met the kid who grows up and cures Alzheimer’s– the person who will one day claim that he or she started their journey in biomedicine thanks to two guys on a mission to democratize neuroscience.
Also, I saw a remote-controlled cockroach. A live cockroach saddled with a circuit backpack, steered via wireless controller. When I heard of it, I was standing in a park watching my son play soccer. A friend of mine came over and mentioned it, cyborg cockroaches in Clarkston, Michigan.
It was as if a spacecraft landed at midfield and the ghost of Jules Verne beckoned. I had to go.
I arrived at Clarkston Science, Math, and Technology Academy at about 9 a.m. Soldering irons surrounded eleventh-grade biology students. They spent the morning building biomedical equipment, SpikerBoxes, from kits developed by Backyard Brains.
Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, both PhDs, founded the company.
“This actual project started as a joke,” Marzullo says of the SpikerBox. We pause to listen to the teacher instruct the students to check twice and solder once. Marzullo explains that PhD candidates who work in solid state electronics labs may spend up to 6 years developing sophisticated, patent-able equipment using next generation chips and sensors. He and Gage wondered, if you just want to read neural activity, could someone do what costs a million dollars for less than a hundred?
They presented non-working prototypes at a conference two and a half years ago, and were flooded with responses.
“We had more attention in three hours in presenting these non-working prototypes than I did in six years of experiments in grad school,” says Marzullo. They responded and created a working model from off-the-shelf components.
The SpikerBoxes allow students to hear and see neural activity, called a spike.
Marzullo explains,“The EKG, the lub-dub, is a kind of a cultural phenomenon … [Like the heart], the neurons also fire, also use electricity to communicate as well. But it’s much faster—one millisecond long—and it’s much smaller in amplitude; it’s a much weaker signal. So that spike is kind of like that electrical pulse that travels down a neuron, and the rate of those pulses is one way that the brain encodes information. So when you’re seeing a spike, it’s like the first time you hear a heart beat.”
The students finish the SpikerBoxes; the cockroach experience begins. A few Blaberus discoidalis cockroaches will have a limb surgically removed. The legs, the scientists explain, have neurons firing in them, even after they are amputated, and will remain alive for up to two days.
Volunteers take on the roles of anesthesiologist and surgeon. Marzullo guides them through the procedure. The cockroaches are removed from their habitat and submerged in ice water. Using small, curved scissors, the leg is quickly and carefully cut and pinned to a SpikerBox. Students huddle around it, waiting to hear the spikes. It sounds like static. Gage and Marzullo then connect the box to an iPad, and students can see a visual representation of the sounds.
They discuss possible responses of the leg to stimuli, and reveal what will be one of the student’s favorite experiments: How will a cockroach leg respond to the sound vibrations of hip-hop, specifically the song “Love the Way You Lie?”
Visual evidence suggests that the legs preferred the beats of the Eminem verse to the melodic sections featuring Rihanna. The cockroach leg appears to dance.
Later, Marzullo says, “the first time that dancing leg thing worked, I nearly fell off my seat… [it’s] just science fiction far out.”
It’s more than that. Gage and Marzullo encourage the students to have a healthy skepticism. Is this real, they want to know, or are we tricking you? I find myself playing along. They could fake the spikes; how would I know the sound or wave pattern of a neuron? I could argue away that evidence as trickery. I’m having a harder time arguing with a newly severed, rhythmic limb.
I am inspired to make up words. Entrepreneurologists. Revulsionary. Creeptastic.
A group of prospective students, eighth-graders, come through the classroom on a tour. Mike Olsen, my friend, the teacher, tells them about the day’s activity. One of the students asks, “Is that ethical?”
He sees this kind of hands-on work as intellectual nutrition for his students, and reminds me that the cockroaches aren’t actually dying, and it’s true. Both the amputees and the implanted cockroaches continue their lives: eating, reproducing. Despite this, Marzullo tells me some of his colleagues feel that a three-dimensional computer model would suffice, that this is a step backward. In their eyes the experiments are less ethical when less supervised, less controlled, less mature students participate.
Gage and Marzullo see the participation differently. They see themselves at 16, longing to have this sort of opportunity. Beyond this, they wonder if an early understanding might lead to more rapid advancement in their field, eventually leading to breakthroughs that improve the quality of life for people dealing with brain function anomalies. They’ve received funding from the Kauffman Foundation, the Michigan New Economy Initiative, and the National Institutes of Health’s Small Business Innovation Research grant program. They’ll be reporting on how student retention of neuroscience concepts is impacted by these experiments over the next two years.
The cockroaches, then, aren’t the only subjects.
I survey the room. Gage walks around as spikes screech from each table. Marzullo holds his breath as he brings together electrode and antennae for a different experiment, the much-anticipated RoboRoach. When this step is complete, he says, “This is so wonderful, hearing sounds like this in a high school classroom.”
Another screech rises up from the lab tables, and Marzullo laughs as he returns to the prep. About a minute and a half later, one box sounds like high-pitched, club-style scratching. Marzullo looks up and explains to the cockroach deejay that this is how a theremin works as well. I find myself singing “Good Vibrations.”
The RoboRoach prep complete, students take turns pressing the buttons on a control panel about the size of the roach itself, laughing about what the cockroach might say if it could speak. They observe the cockroach at first responding to, then eventually ignoring the microstimulation.
The cockroach isn’t really a cyborg; he’s being tricked into moving in one direction or another. Eventually, the RoboRoach is no longer steerable. The microstimulation provides no reinforcement, so the impulse is adapted to, ignored. I imagine that this could be altered with a reward, a treat. For the rest of the day, I try not to be distracted by the vision of someone breeding a cockroach army.
I text my husband that this is the best day ever. It’s almost like living poetry in the classroom, watching students so engaged, watching scientists and teachers work with such enthusiasm and passion.
“The average person on the street, not even the average person, the above-average person doesn’t know how the brain works,” says Gage, “doesn’t even know the basic principles of the brain, that energy from the outside world, be it sound, light, heat, gets transformed into a neural code through these things, through these neurons, and then your brain processes this information and then causes your body to move, all through electricity.”
Marzullo says, “When you’re seeing a spike, it’s like the first time you hear a heart beat. You’re seeing that basic element of information-processing in your brain. And so we’ll see some this afternoon, and when you look at it, it’s like you’re looking at reality.”
It’s the stuff of fiction, but it’s real. It’s science and meta-science. It’s challenging; it’s full of potential; it feels like art.