Feighan: DIY-ers with a mind-boggling medium: the brain

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
Greg Gage, co-founded of Backyard Brains in Ann Arbor, is a TED senior fellow.

Greg Gage wears a t-shirt with a cockroach decal on it because in his line of work, cockroaches aren't disgusting. They're anything but. They're workhorses, possibly holding the next great breakthrough into how the brain operates as it does.

Gage is a neuroscientist, engineer and co-founder of Ann Arbor-based Backyard Brains. Its mission: make neuroscience accessible to everyone, especially kids, and potentially open the door to future cures for debilitating condition or find the next great neuroscientist.

Backyard Brains makes DIY-neuroscience kits for middle schools, high schools and universities that boil down how the brain works in a user-friendly way and let students do their own research with electrodes, microprocessors and yes, sometimes even cockroaches. 

"In our world we use cockroaches for a lot of things," said Gage from his office in downtown Ann Arbor. "You can easily record from the individual neurons themselves by putting a couple pins through its hard shell. You pierce through and you can touch the neurons."

The brain is the most powerful and mysterious organ in the body. It contains 80 billion neurons, or cells. And yet most kids never learn anything about neuroscience in school.

"It's typically a graduate level field," said Gage.

And yet one in five people will one day suffer from a neurological condition, says Gage, citing a statistic from the World Health Organization.

"And there are no known cures for these diseases so it just seems silly that we’re not doing more to get research into the hands of the people that could actually have an affect," said Gage.

That's why Gage and partner Tim Marzullo, who met as doctoral students at the University of Michigan, set out to change that. They realized there wasn't a way to demonstrate the experiments they were doing because only universities had access to the machines and equipment used in the study of neuroscience. Soon, Backyard Brains was born.

Gage says two things in particular laid the groundwork for their company: the introduction of a microprocessor for the general public in 2008 and the 3D printer. The iPhone was also introduced in 2008.

"There were all these things that were happening around that time when I was in grad school that allowed for what we call the neuro-revolution," said Gage. 

Ann Arbor-based Backyard Brains sells kits to schools and universities that allows students to do their own neuroscience research. Co-founder Greg Gage will demonstrate one of their experiments at TEDx Detroit on Wednesday.

Today, Backyard Brains, which will celebrate 10 years in business next year, has shipped 45,000 kits to schools and universities all the world that lets kids do their own neuroscience research and really demonstrates the power of the brain. The kits are aimed at kids from fifth grade and up.

One kit lets user record the electrical activity in their muscles. Another allows people to send an electrical impulse from one person's arm, amplify it and translate it through what's called a SpikerShield and make another person's arm move. And yes, they even offer a kit that allows users to briefly control a cockroach's movement by connecting it to electrodes and using microstimulation. 

And there certainly seems to be an appetite for it. One of Gage's TED talks -- he's done many and he'll speak Wednesday at TEDx Detroit at the Masonic Theatre downtown -- has been viewed 6 million times. A video that demonstrates how to use its RoboRoach kit has been viewed 5 million times on YouTube.

"People are fascinated with the brain and are eager to learn more," said Gage, who will do a demonstration on Wednesday about reflex times and how that works. "The brain is often covered as something opaque. Headlines speak to 'the mysteries of the brain.' What we do is show you with real measurements how the brain works. And show how you too can participate in discovery. It gets people excited."

Excited even about cockroaches. That's a first.