S2 Episode 16: Do-It-Yourself Neuroscience

Worried about dementia, depression, or the zombie apocalypse? Greg Gage, PhD, has a solution for all of these – teach more kids about neuroscience, stat. His company, Backyard Brains, makes do-it-yourself brain kits that wow students with robo-roaches, nerve takeovers, and the sounds of neurons popping. One of these aspiring neuroscientists just may save us from brain disorders (or zombies) some day. Plus… listen in as Gage demonstrates how to take over an unsuspecting audience member’s arm.

Phil Stieg: Hello and welcome to Dr. Greg Gage, co-founder of Backyard Brains, a do it yourself neuroscience kit. One in five people will have some form of mental or neurological disorder in their lifetime. To combat this, we need more neuroscientists, but that’s difficult and expensive. Dr. Gage will show us how we and our children can make neuroscience education affordable. He has given TED talks, been a recipient of the White House Champion of Change award and placed on CNN’s influential Next List. Let’s learn how we can grow young scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. It’s important for our brain health. Greg, thanks for being here.

Greg Gage: Hey, thanks for having me on. I think things like this that you’re doing are super important.

Phil Stieg: Perhaps you can tell us a little bit about what Backyard Brains is.

Greg Gage: Yeah, so it was a company that was kind of started by accident. So I was I’m I was I’m a PhD neuroscientist. I did research. So what I would do, I would put a bunch of wires and animals and try to figure out how their brains work so that we can understand a little bit more about ourselves. Right? So while I was doing this, I was also interested in sort of talking to students about that. We realized slowly that the things that we were doing in the classroom were so far removed from what I was doing in the research lab that it didn’t make much sense. You can talk about action potentials with, you know, with a jump rope and make it, you know, go from one end to the other. You can talk about, you know, neurotransmitters with ping pong balls. But it was so far removed from the actual interesting stuff that’s happening inside the brain that my lab mate Tim Marzullo and I, decided we were going to do a self-imposed engineering challenge. And so we published an abstract that said; we’re going to try to record a neuron from the brain and we’re going to try to do that for less than one hundred dollars. So what was our budget so that we can bring it into a classroom, because classically these equipment costs about forty thousand dollars is what the equipment that I had.

We pitched it as a solution to the zombie apocalypse, because if I would have had a, you know, a poster about a one channel bio-amplifier for recording neurons, it’d be so boring that no one would stop by. But if you have the solution to the zombie apocalypse in your title, you know, then people like, oh, what is this? If there was a zombie apocalypse, it’s obviously a neurological affliction. If your loved ones turn into zombies and you want to solve this problem and cure this disease, you would have to record for the brain and understand how the brain is doing. And so but everybody, all the scientists have turned into zombies. You know, all the equipment manufacturers have turned into Zombies, so you need to break into RadioShack at night and steal your supplies and build these kits yourself. And so here is our first attempt at that. We did it with invertebrates and we were using at that time crickets. So we just like little, tiny little brains. But if you if you pierce them just with a little pin, you can touch right next to the axons and you can start to pick up that electrical activity and you hear the popping and spiking of neurons.

And so, you know, it’s funny because I think because we didn’t take ourselves too seriously, we had we had a large crowd around us and we got a reporter from the journal Nature stopped by and we got picked up by them. And then Tim and I were sitting at our desks and getting these emails, and everyone’s like asking us like, hey, I kind of I want to buy one of these kids, too, you know? On this little stupid side project, you know, I was getting all these emails from people and you kind of realize that, hey, man, maybe this the side project could be the real project?

Phil Stieg: So you don’t have a background in education. It’s not like you were a teacher.

Greg Gage: Absolutely not. No. So that’s that’s what. Yeah, that was just that. It was a passion of mine to go out there and talk to kids– because I thought that was I thought people were missing out on what I and I didn’t want them to. I felt like I wasted ten years before I could actually be a contributing member to the scientific community. And I felt that these kids were going to have that same problem. And so that’s that was the motivation factor.

Phil Stieg: Let’s get granular. I mean, we talk about these do-it-yourself neuroscience kits. I mean, how many kits are there? How many different kinds of kits? And then let’s talk about one.

Greg Gage: So the original one our very first invention was a little kit that allows you to remove a leg from a roach or from a cricket. (And so these legs regrow this kind of a nice green aspect of working with invertebrates.) But if you put the pins through the legs, you can touch those neurons and you can pick up these beautiful popping sound. They sound like raindrops on a tin roof. It is. And it turns out that you can manipulate those spikes by taking a little, you know, toothpick and touching the hairs. You get the the change in the rates of the axon potential. And you start immediately in the in a fifth-grade class. You’re starting to understand what I had to wait, you know, thirty five years of my life to be able to do, which is to go to a research lab and have the equipment to be able to do this. And now people can do that right away.

The second product we built was called the RoboRoach. It is the world’s first commercially available cyborg in the history of mankind. It still is. It’s part biological. It’s a cockroach and part robotics. So we have this little backpack that we are able to place on the back of the cockroach. W e have the ability from your phone to connect to the backpack and then the backpack talks to the cockroach via the neurons in its antenna. And you can get the cockroach to think that it’s touching a wall by stimulating the neurons and one antenna and then it will turn in the opposite direction. Then you can have a cockroach that you can steer around the house

Phil Stieg: So tell me, when you’re doing this kind of stuff, it’s like the first time you did it. What did you see in the face of the children and what was there excitement?

Greg Gage: I think one of the most amazing things that anyone in the world can understand is hearing their own brain for the first time. And so I think most people walk around their entire lives without understanding that they’re they have neurons in their brains and there’s neurons are doing all the computation for them and actually be able to perceive consciousness and make you move. But when you can actually step back and observe that for the first time, I think that it’s a big wow factor. And I think I’ll give one example. A number of years ago, I did a talk about the motor cortex and how the motor cortex allows your body to move and you can record the electrical activity from it. I actually have one hooked up right now so you can actually listen to what the brain sounds like when I want my hand to move and it’s going to sound like this. (sound) And so people, when they first hear that, they’re like, well, what is it? And you can see they keep moving their hand and they keep hearing that. And then they suddenly put two and two together that my brain has an electrical signal that’s causing my body to work. All right. So that’s the first wow factor is that everyone’s like, whoa! But then you can do something even more interesting, which is you take that signal and you can feed into another person’s arm so that you can actually get this thing to move somebody else. And so that when the people see that, their minds are blown. That wow factor at first is magic. And then they start thinking about it and they start to understand really how the brain works.

Phil Stieg: We’ll return to our discussion after a short break.

This Is Your Brain: The Guided Tour – Do-It-Yourself Neuroscience

Phil Stieg: These are things that these are the things that kids can buy, moms and dads can buy, schools can buy? It’s accessible to anybody? And you take it home and it’s self-explained? You get a little book or pamphlet telling me what is?

Greg Gage: We have things online. I’m writing a book right now for MIT Press, and it’ll come out with Penguin Books, and it’s called “How the Brain Works”. Very modest, modest, very modest. So we want to kind of a provocative title. Right? But they’ re, all experiments you can do at home. And some of them are really simple. Dropping a ruler. You can measure your reaction time. Look at choice for like how long does it make it to make a decision? All these types of things can be kind of measured very carefully. And so, like, we can ask fun questions, but we answer them very seriously. The idea is that we want to change the state standards so that they have neuroscience as a requirement. We have other areas of science, you know, chemistry. We have biology and physics. Why not neuroscience? And so I think if you look at the problems in the world of the future, I think it’s going to be mostly be right around the health problems of the brain. And so we’re pushing for that. And so in order to get that in place, we have to have a textbook into we’re working on another textbook that comes out after this popular book, which will have all the curriculum for high school teacher or even from fifth grade on up to be able to do these types of lessons. And so that that just like everyone knows the periodic table, we want them to be able to understand neuroscience at that same level.

Phil Stieg: What you’re doing is you’re allowing kids, parents to touch and feel the science, which is so important. I find it amazing. And as I understand it, you also you allow children on stage and you do experiments with them real time and live. Give an example.

Greg Gage: If I’m giving a talk, I just go. I will not do any experiments. I always just sit back and I just got to give them some coaching, but I let them do everything they’ll do. I’ll ask for a neurosurgeon and the kids will raise their hand and then I’ll ask for anesthesiologists and we have an anesthesiologist come down. So it turns out with cockroaches and worms. It’s something that you could you just dunk them in ice water and that’s the anesthesiologist. I want people to understand that you can do this, too. In our book. everything’s hand drawn and we want to make it look like a kid can do this. Right? Most kids don’t see themselves being able to do that. But if you work hard on that, you can change that idea in people’s minds. And so then so that is all part of the idea. So that’s always the case that we try to do that. So we have one – this is where creativity comes in. So talking about EMGs electromyograms, the things that come out of your muscles. I mean, it’s cool, but wouldn’t it be cool if you could make a copy of your M.G. and send it into somebody else’s arm? And so that’s what we’ve invented. So we made this thing – a human to human interface so that you could record from one brain and you can send that recording into another person. So when one person starts moving their hand, the other person’s hand starts moving. And so that’s a fun one. That is pick two random people that don’t know each other. You hook them up and then all of a sudden one person is controlling another person. And so that’s part of that. It’s part of the allure of what we do.

Phil Stieg: Looking back now. I mean, you’re still young and still early in the development of a company. Looking back, which time did you do an experiment and you went, wow, this is this is it. This is this is going to be transformative.

Greg Gage: You know, it’s funny. It’s the very first one – that simple thing of understanding this, the basic principles of the of the neuron itself to me is the most rewarding. Early in my in my career before I actually started my career, I stopped by a neuroscience lab and I heard a spike of a neuron for the very first time. And I and I realized that I had no idea what was going on here. And I’m an electrical engineer. It just never just never dawned on me how the brain worked. And when I heard that neuron popping and I saw I was in a mouse and a mouse –moving his neck, and every time I would move his neck to the right (imitates noise) I’d hear the popping of these neurons, I was like, holy cow, man. And that changed my life forever. And I realized from that moment on I wanted to be a neuroscientist. Later in my career I found out that it was pretty common. A lot of neuroscientists will tell you that they became a neuroscientist when they heard a neuron for the first time. And so we keep track. We have the first time “spikers”. I still keep track here. We had like we had something like fifteen thousand kids at her neuron for the first time. That’s fifteen thousand potential neuroscientists.

Phil Stieg: Well, people need to realize is that there wasn’t even a major in college in neuroscience back in the 60s. It didn’t become popularized until the seventies

Greg Gage: Yeah, it’s all relatively new and now I’m starting to see more and more neuroscience courses in high schools. And so you’re starting to see not just a semester like dual semester, like full year long courses that are doing, you know, everything from electrophysiology to looking at imaging to looking at opti-genetics and all this type of stuff.

Phil Stieg: I want to address some of the concerns so many of you might have about the fact that you’re, quote, experimenting on cockroaches and worms. What are the ethical dilemmas that you’ve addressed to make sure that that isn’t a concern?

Greg Gage: What I try to do when I do any type of animal experiment in front of a classroom or live audience, I will always talk about the ethics of what we’re doing. And so the biggest thing you have to do when you’re doing research on animals, you have to look at the cost benefit ratio. So you kind of look at one end, what is the cost to the animal and then the other end, what is the benefit to society, let’s say. And so if you look at what we do with our cockroaches and what we can remove a leg or we remove an antenna. And so that seems like that could be a painful thing. Right. But it turns out that if you do the research on that, that this happens often in nature and they have these joints that pop where their legs right off and they regrow them. We’ve looked at how long does it take for a cockroach to regrow a leg? What are the behaviors of the cockroach? Do they seem different than the controls that didn’t have that? And so we can say fairly confidently that the cost is fairly low because the behaviors all seem to be the same. And so then what is the benefit to society of understanding how the brain works and understanding getting the next generation to grasp on to the scientific, you know, ideals to be able to help us discover new things in the future? I think it’s a huge benefit to that. We try not to harm our insects. We have a “shady acres”. It’s a retirement community for cockroaches. We put them in there and we allow them to do whatever cockroaches like to do and they produce new babies for us. And so but I think it’s important. I think I think we don’t do that enough in science to actually have that conversation with the public about why it’s important that we sometimes have to work with animals to understand research.

Phil Stieg: Dr. Gregory Gage, it’s amazing what you’re doing. Your ability to stimulate and educate younger people to go into this field is greatly appreciated. Thank you so much for being with us.

Greg Gage: And thank you and thanks for doing what you’re doing. This is super important. So thank you for having me on.