Most scientists finish their experiments weeks, or at least days, before presenting them at conference. But as I peered down into a microscope, watching fruitfry larvae twitch every time a soft blue light flashed, I saw research in progress in the poster session at the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting in Washington DC today.
The experiment — on a fruitfly genetically engineered to produce a protein in its motor neurons that make them sensitive to light — was part of a demonstration of a fledgling company called Backyard Brains. Over the past three years, the start-up has created low-cost set-ups for recording firing neurons (called Spikerbox) and controlling the movements of a cockroach (the Roboroach).
Today at SfN, they revealed a cheap tool for stimulating genetically engineered neurons with light — optogenetics — that aims to bring a technology at the bleeding edge of neuroscience research to high-school and undergraduate students and garage hobbyists. “We like to look to astronomy as an example,” says Tim Marzullo, Backyard Brain’s co-founder, noting that affordable telescopes let anyone probe the Universe. “If astronomy were like neuroscience, you would have to get a PhD just to look at Saturn.”
The optogenetics kit (which is still looking for a name) consists of a blue LED light that is controlled with a smart-phone application, a microscope and platform for precisely placing an electrode on a fly, and a ‘Spikerbox’ for recording the activity of the neurons stimulated by the blue light. Marzullo and his partner Greg Gage are working on reducing the manufacturing costs of the platform, which is made with a three-dimensional printer, but they hope to sell the device for less than US$200 in the coming months.
They have already sold more than 100 of the $99 Spikerboxes ($50 if you put it together yourself), mostly to undergraduate labs, high schools and do-it-yourself biologists.
They have designed a number of experiments that can be easily performed on their products. The Roboroach, for instance, stops responding to electrical stimulation after a few minutes — a demonstration of a principle called adaptation, in which repeatedly activated neurons eventually become unresponsive. A group of high school students tweaked this experiment and stimulated the cockroach to the frequencies of a Lady Gaga song and found that it took longer for its nerves to become unresponsive.
Backyard Brains is partly funded by the US National Institutes of Health, but Marzullo says that the company already makes a small profit on its devices and could pay its own way if it steps up production. But he sees the company as more of an experiment in education than a profit-maker. By introducing students to experimental neuroscience in their teens instead of their twenties, he hopes his company will help to encourage more of them to study the brain and work towards developing therapies.
Although the company focuses on undergraduate and high-school education, professional neuroscientists have taken notice. As an April Fool’s joke, the company announced that it had hired Karl Deisseroth, the Stanford University neuroscientist who helped develop optogenetics. Marzullo says Deisseroth soberly passed on the news to his laboratory members, asking them to think seriously about joining him at the company’s Michigan headquarters.
Also, Backyard Brains has put together a couple of videos showing the Spikerbox in action.