Backyard Brains is a small DIY company with the goal of spreading an interest in neuroscience to the public. The brain is poorly understood by most everyone... and neuroscience is typically not taught until late undergrad or graduate school. We feel that exposing people to how the brain works at an earlier age will help get kids thinking about a career in neuroscience. And we could definitely use the help! 1 out of 5 people will suffer from a neurological disease where there is not a known cure!
Why Write a Paper?
We have developed low-costs tools to investigate the brain, but teachers have told us they need help when preparing lesson plans and lectures. We decided it would be a good idea to publish a paper that teachers and amateurs could use to understand and perform experiments. We wrote a paper that outlines four neuroscience experiments for publication in the journal PLoS ONE. The paper includes a teachers guide with background information on the experiments, plus student handouts for use in class. Each experiment has it's own separate hand-out, so educators can choose which section they wish to cover. We have also included an engineering section which details how we designed the SpikerBox, and steps for building one yourself.
Although people are generally interested in how their brain functions, neuroscience education to the public is hampered by a lack of low cost and engaging teaching materials. To address this, we developed an open-source tool, the SpikerBox, which is appropriate for use in middle/high school educational programs and by amateurs. This device can be used in easy experiments in which students insert sewing pins into the leg of a cockroach, or other invertebrate, to amplify and listen to the electrical activity of neurons. With the cockroach leg preparation, students can hear and see (using a smartphone oscilloscope app we have developed) the dramatic changes in activity that occur when the mechanosensitive barbs are touched. Students can also experiment with other manipulations such as temperature, drugs, and microstimulation that affect the neural activity. We include teaching guides and other resources in the supplemental materials. These hands-on lessons with the SpikerBox have proven to be effective in teaching basic neuroscience.
Experiment I: How do nerves carry information about touch? Students learn the concept of “rate-coding” by listening to the changes in neural discharge in response to touch using the cockroach leg preparation. Location-dependent (or “somatotopic”) responses can be illuminated by touching several areas along the leg.
Experiment II: How do neurons generate electricity? By selectively heating and cooling the cockroach leg, students can indirectly observe the properties of ion channels and their influence on spikes.
Experiment III: How does your brain tell your muscles to move? By using the analog output of a portable MP3 device or laptop, students can measure the effect of frequency and amplitude on the initiation of movements in the cockroach leg. The use of electricity to create neural or muscle activity is called “microstimulation”.
Experiment IV: How do drugs affect neurons? The effects of “neuroactive” agents on the central nervous system can be studied to explain the function of synapses and neurotransmitters. Two types of neurotransmitter agents, chemicals involved in neuron-to-neuron communication, are injected into the CNS of a cricket. Students can analyze the behavioural and neural recording results to determine the effects of each.
About the Publication Process
Most journals charge subscribers to read their articles. We wanted our articles to be available to everyone, so we decided to publish in an open-access journal: PLoS ONE. The idea behind open-access is that the authors pay up front to publish, so the readers can get access to the articles for free.
We are asking for help with the $1,350 required to get our paper published in PLoS ONE (their standard rate for non-institutional authors). If you help us defray the publication costs, you will be added to the acknowledgment section of our paper.
You can get involved in the scientific publication process! You can help teachers access teaching materials for free.
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