About this project
BBC - "the technique is the same as that used to treat Parkinson's disease and in cochlear implants"
Slashdot - "relax and enjoy learning"
Forbes - "Science! Democracy! RoboRoaches!"
FastCompany - "the RoboRoach has already led to a scientific discovery"
TED - "Backyard Brains is developing affordable tools that allow educators to teach electrophysiology"
CBS News - "While it might seem like all fun and games... the goal is to impact the advancement of basic neuroscience research."
Computerworld - "If you haven't seen a cockroach wearing a backpack ... this is a must-see video"
Mashable - "... the RoboRoach is not a toy, but rather a learning tool."
Discovery - "the cyborg roach idea as part of an effort to show students what real brain spiking activity looks like"
What is the RoboRoach?
The RoboRoach is the world's first commercially available cyborg! That's right... A real-life Insect Cyborg! Part cockroach and part machine. This is not a gimmick... just good ol' fashion neuroscience, evolution and engineering.
How does it work?
Our Roboroach is an innovative marriage of behavioral neuroscience and neural engineering. Cockroaches use the antennas on their head to navigate the world around them. When these antennas touch a wall, the cockroach turns away from the wall. The antenna of a cockroach contains neurons that are sensitive to touch and smell.
These neurons convey information back to the brain using electricity in the form of “spikes”.
The backpack we invented communicates directly to the neurons via small electrical pulses. The cockroach undergoes a short surgery (under anesthesia) in which wires are placed inside the antenna. Once it recovers, a backpack is temporarily placed on its back.
When you send the command from your mobile phone, the backpack sends pulses to the antenna, which causes the neurons to fire, which causes the roach to think there is a wall on one side. The result? The roach turns! Microstimulation is the same neurotechnology that is used to treat Parkinson’s Disease and is also used in Cochlear Implants.
What will I learn from the RoboRoach?
This product is not a toy, but a tool to learn about how our brains work. Using the RoboRoach, you will be able to discover a number of interesting things about nature:
Neural control of Behaviour: First and foremost you will see in real-time how the brain respondes to sensory stimuli.
Learning and Memory: After a few minutes the cockroach will stop responding to the RoboRaoch microstimulation. Why? The brain learns and adapts. That is what brains are designed to do. You can measure the time to adaptation for various stimulation frequencies.
Adaptation and Habituation: After placing the cockroach back in its homecage, how long does it take for him to respond again? Does he adapt to the stimuli more quickly?
Stimuli Selection: What range of frequencies works for causing neurons to fire? With this tool, you will be able to select the range of stimulation to see what works best for your prep. Is it the same that is used by medical doctors stimulating human neurons? You will find out.
Effect of Randomness: For the first time ever... we will be adding a “random” mode to our stimulus patterns. We, as humans, can adapt easily to periodic noises (the hum a refrigerator can be ignored, for example). So perhaps the reason for adaptation is our stimulus is periodic. Now you can select random mode and see if the RoboRoach adapts as quickly.. or at all!
Total Weight: <4.5g
Stimulation Frequencies: 1Hz-200Hz Stimulation Pulse Widths: 1ms-500ms (Max pulse width is dependent on the Frequency) Stimulation
Stimulation Time: 5ms to 1000s.
Battery: 16mm 1632 Coin Cell Battery
Use Time: 12 hours per battery
Communication Protocol: Bluetooth Low Energy Compatible
Supported iOS Devices: iPhone 4s+, iPod 5th generation+, iPad mini, iPad 4th Generation+
Supported Android Devices: Motorola Droid Razr M (many others when BLE is officially released)
What is a RoboRoach Kit?
We will package each RoboRoach kits with a reusable backpack and 3x recording electrodes (One per RoboRoach). We will also include a battery. All you need is an insect, some time, and a mobile device that support Bluetooth LE.
We need your help!
Why are we running this campaign? We need to develop 2-3 more prototypes to get the scalable stimulation (using an SPI digital Potentiometer) and power management to work. We also need the capital to order in large volume to get discounts on hardware that keeps our gear affordable.
Here are what the T-Shirt and Mug rewards will look like for our backers.
Who are you people?
Backyard Brains a small startup company of scientists and engineers, and we are changing the way the next generation of students are taught neuroscience and engineering. We believe in creating opportunities for students of all ages to engage in hands on, inquiry based learning. Adopting this framework, we’ve shown that our inventions and experiments improve student retention and learning outcomes. [See: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0030837] We have a successful track record of inventing and educating.
Join Backyard Brains in the NeuroRevolution! Help us change the way neuroscience and engineering is taught.
Risks and challenges
As with any hardware project, there are risks associated with research development. This is our first invention to use a digital microcontroller, and BLE is an emerging technology with little device support outside of Apple.
We hope to mitigate these risks, in general by engaging the growing community of Open Hardware developers. We are also hosting all of our embedded and mobile code on GitHub, so we can draw on the help of its millions of registered users.
We have plans to develop for the Motorola Razr M. We will develop for the rest of the Android devices once support is announced, but we cannot be certain if that will for sure be in the next release (All signs are that it will be).
We are a successful and determined group of neuroscientists and engineers, with a proven track record of product development cycles. Our inventions have been featured in over 90 media outlets such as Wired, CNN, TED, Forbes and The New York Times.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
We send small amounts of current to the neurons. This method is called microstimulation, and is used to make nearby neurons fire action potentials or "spikes". This is not an electric shock, nor does it cause pain. We can verify this by the fact that the cockroach can adapt to the micro stimulation in a few minutes, and ignore it completely, something that cannot be done with painful stimuli. Cockroaches also have a fear response, which we fail to see with using the cockroach.
We have an ethical statement regarding our insect experiments at:
Below are responses to criticisms raised about this specific project.
Criticism: The name "The RoboRoach: Control a Living Insect from Your Smartphone" emphasizes this is not a scientific instrument but simply a toy.
Response: Given our emphasis on compelling demos that capture the public's interest, we chose a provocative title. A more accurate though much drier title would have been: "The RoboRoach: Study the effect of frequency and pulse duration on activating sensory circuits in the cockroach locomotion system, and the subsequent adaptation." Such a description though would have alienated novices who have never had any exposure to neuroscience or neural interface experiments. We aim to bring neuroscience to people not necessarily in graduate school and thus chose an easily understandable, provocative name.
Modifying a living creature to make a toy is wrong.
Response: The RoboRoach circuit is not a toy. This new bluetooth version is a powerful low-cost tool for studying neural circuits, allowing for students to make discoveries. High school students in New York, for example, have discovered random stimulation causes much slower adaptation times. We have scientist and high school educator colleagues who are mentoring students in novel behavioral experiments using the RoboRoach circuit. Some highlights will be posted on our website soon.
This is pseudoscience.
Response: Investigating neural circuits with electrical microstimulation has a rich history going back more than 150 years. Using this tool to study electrical excitability of neurons, adaptation times, and neural interfaces will help create the next generation of neural engineers, scientists, and physicians to tackle the very real problem of finding treatments to neural diseases. One in five people will be affected by a neural affliction at some point in their lives, and we have very little treatments to almost any neural affliction you can name (spinal cord injury, Alzheimer's, Schizophrenia, Depression, Multiple Sclerosis, etc…). Our tools enable students to begin hands-on learning about neuroscience at a much earlier age (high school vs. grad school), giving such future scientists and engineers a 5-10 year head start on tackling such grand problems.
This enables and encourages kids to harm animals.
The cockroach is anesthetized during the surgery to avoid the risk of the cockroach experiencing pain (though it is debatable whether they experience pain at all), and the cockroach adapts to the stimulation rapidly. The 55 Hz stimulation we use is the same frequency used in electrical stimulation to treat human diseases such as Parkinson’s.
We have sold analog versions of the RoboRoach for the last two years. Teenagers who have bought this circuit have often done the experiments under the guidance of their parents as an educational experience. These students typically want to pursue careers in medicine or neuroscience. We will be highlighting such examples on our website soon.
If you live in the United States, we can send you a sturdy box of a dozen, healthy discoids, or discoid/cranifer hybrids. Cockroaches are the happiest when they aren't in a shipping box for a long period of time. Therefore, we ship cockroaches out on Monday or Tuesday via 2-3 day USPS priority mail.
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