Backyard Brains comes to PICNIC Festival with a 2-hour workshop that brings together bugs and neurons.

PICNIC Festival Day 2: Backyard Brains & Roboroaches...

Photo by Maurice Mikkers

A small group of visitors is gathering in the front rows. Today Tim Marzullo, co-founder of Backyard Brains is brought a fully functional portable electro-physiology lab to explain to us how a brain works. Backyard Brains designed a kit that provides insight into the inner workings of the body, specifically the brain.

So off we go, to a class on neuroscience -- which is unfamiliar to most of us. Tim starts with showing a box of cockroaches, and shivers emerge from some of the visitors. These bugs aren't the small ones we know in Holland, they are huge! Politely, Tim asks who wants to grab one. Bravely, someone stands up. Standing around the table we see the cockroach being put in ice water. After a short introduction to neurons, their electrical activity and how to measure it, we chop off a cockroach leg and put it on the Spikerbox. It is Backyard Brains' first product, a kit that combines invertebrate preparations with off-the-shelf electronics. It provides a great way to learn about how the brain works by letting you hear and even see the electrical impulses of neurons.

After listening to the electrical impulses, which sounds like noise, we’re about to throw some stimuli at the cockroach leg. All the visitors are kind of flabbergasted when Tim plugs an iPhone in with Missy Elliot's music on the electrodes. The stimuli caused by the music, result in a moving cockroach leg. It is an baffling sight.

“She’s a bit shy, she doesn’t want to dance!”

Tim explains how humans don’t have the capability to rebuild our neurons and therefore our brain. While other species, like worms, cockroaches and other insects, have the capability to recover them. (So the cockroach in this project can grow a new leg.)

In addition, these experiments are useful and instructive and good for getting insights into the working of neurons. They are leading to new discoveries in neuroscience which can be applied to things like a prosthesis steered by the brain.

One of their famous experiments on a squid got a lot of hits on youtube. The skin of a squid, Tim explains, lights up when stimulated by music. See this video Insane in the Chromatophores:

Backyard Brains' experiments are a bit controversial. But the guys from Backyard Brains are enthusiastic speakers and teachers making complicated stuff understandable and fun. Their workshops are engaging and educational.

Their products are now being used at 250 universities and 70 high schools worldwide.

Contributed by Roos van de Weerd

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