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Meet the Scientist Who Teaches Neuroscience With a Toy Cockroach

March 19, 2014
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Meet the Scientist Who Teaches Neuroscience With a Toy Cockroach
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The entrepreneur behind Backyard Brains hopes to attract kids to this heady discipline.

It goes without saying that most kids think bugs are cool. After all, there’s a reason why ant farms and insect jars have been popular toys for several generations now. Michigan’s Greg Gage is hoping to capitalize on this fasciation with bugs in order to spark a brain science revolution.

After a first career in electrical engineering, Gage fell in love with neuroscience and now he wants to share his enthusiasm with kids. While Gage was earning his Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Michigan, he and fellow student Tim Marzullo gave lessons about the brain to kids at nearby inner-city schools. “But it was never quite as cool as what we were doing in our labs,” Gage told Melissa Pandika of Ozy magazine.

So they started to build a machine that would allow students to record when the neurons of insects experienced a voltage spike, sending an electrical impulse to communicate the desire to move a leg, for example. Gage and Marzullo set a goal to only spend $100 and use materials available at hardware stores to build their SpikerBox. Even when the original prototype failed, it generated enough interest that they garnered sufficient donations to continue their quest.

The eventual result — dubbed Backyard Brains — offers a variety of kits and tools for kids to launch their own neuroscience investigations, including the EMG SpikerBox that amplifies the “hidden messages” of the user’s nervous system, and the Roboroach, a kit of tools that allows the user to attach electronics to a roach to briefly control its movements through the microstimulation of its neurons. (The Roboroach is based on a current treatment for Parkinson’s disease.) Backyard Brains also hosts workshops to teach kids how to build their own SpikerBoxes.

The Backyard Brains website outlines the mission behind these products: “The brain is complex, but extremely fascinating. We need more people interested in studying the brain because 20% of the world will have a neurological disorder…and there are no cures!” Gage told Pandika. “I want to find extremely smart people who typically decide ‘I want to be a doctor’ or ‘I want to go to Wall Street.’ We’re hoping to start a neuro-revolution.”

MORE: If You Want Your Daughter to Dream Big, Have Her Play with This Classic Toy

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