SfN 2008: The $100 Spike

November 16, 2008

As I stumbled back deep into the UU section (the end) of the afternoon SfN poster session in search of coffee, I noticed a bit of a crowd surrounding a poster board, in rapt attention. As I approached they started laughing and clapping. This is unusual. There is rarely a crowd back in the History / Teaching (and now Ethics) section of the poster sessions.
I decided to investigate.


Marzullo and Gage (Large Midwestern Research University) presented a poster describing their efforts to develop a protocol for studying neuronal activity on a budget…

When one thinks of electrophysiology, one normally envisions sophisticated panels of glowing LEDs on complex recording equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars. But does this necessarily need to be the case? Does electrophysiology really need to be out of reach of the amateur or budget-restricted scientist? What if you were to leave your lab tomorrow? What if the zombie apocalypse happened, you somehow survived, and you still wanted to do neuroscience?

..a very tight budget.

Spike-Prototypes400.jpgTheir submitted abstract lays out the goal of the study:

We here present a self-imposed engineering challenge. If we have a standard PC laptop and a cricket caught in the back yard, can we record a spike (action potential) for under $100 using components purchased solely from local neighborhood hardware stores and Radioshack?

Ahh, we harken back to an age of gentleman scientists. Well, perhaps “Clerks” meets Newton style, but still…
The authors presented the four prototype recording rigs along with an assortment of parts and equipment required for construction. Here in the figure one can easily observe the development cycle. Apparently “rigidity” was the primary difficulty for the mechanical engineering of the rig.
Spike-presentation300.jpgThe reason for the rapt and appreciative audience was the presentation of the poster, aptly accomplished by each author (what can I say, I stuck around for the encore). The authors employed the flip-board technique to great effect. Allegedly the presentation was honed at the bar the night before although this is unverified. Here the first author illustrates the potential sources for equipment following a hypothetical zombie apocalypse.
I learned all kinds of good stuff including the fact that the ovaries on a female cricket pose difficulties in locating neuronal ganglia.
Apparently these investigators had to pull another abstract they had submitted entitled “From cell fate to human fate decisions: the role of notch signaling in global conflicts”.
They also mentioned that their pseudonymous affiliation was adopted at the request of their powers that be. Booo. Any institution should be happy to be associated with clever and humorous efforts.

Well done and thanks for the laugh, guys!
The authors pose for a picture
UPDATE: Marzullo posted the following video of the performance.

No Responses Yet to “SfN 2008: The $100 Spike”

  1. Indeed. This seems like the kind of clever, appeal-to-the-masses-yet-still-be-scholarly presentation of which any university should be proud. Reminds me of the old dimmer switch power supply for agarose gel electrophoresis.
    Hi-dee-ho to the peanut gallery.


  2. So? Did they record a motherfucking spike!?


  3. Tim Marzullo Says:

    Thanks. You can see a video of us in action (link below). The zombie part beginning, unfortunately, is not in the video, but this will give you a jist of what Greg and I did. Regarding recording the spike, we….are….so…close. We are going to try coachroaches or crayfishes next because you can isolate the nerves without the need of a dissection scope.


  4. If I cannot come to SFN, then SFN shall come to me….yay! That’s seriously an awesome project. It would make a great class project for grad students at the end of first semester neuroscience–construct your own rig with $100. Succeed or fail, every first-year would learn something.


  5. Nat Says:

    Damn that’s cool. I love it! I’ll definitely be setting one up in a few years to do it with the kids.
    And boo hiss on those powers-that-be who didn’t want to be affiliated with these guys. Boring tightwads.


  6. Becca Says:

    Nat- I think you’ve got half of it.
    So it’s easy to assume the powers-that-be were stodgy (boring) old farts who didn’t want to be affiliated with excitingly cool geekiness. But perhaps their motivation really stemmed from a desire to eradicate mental associations between their researchers and poverty. Because “only having $100 dollars for electrophysiology” would kind of imply some crazy tightwad was involved.


  7. JPop Says:

    This is awesome.
    In my undergrad days a neuroscientist (me), a geographer and two mathematicians made an EEG machine for free (begging and borrowing old components from various departments). A great education in talking to/scrounging off/’networking with’ strange academics. It even worked – sort of – and we all learned a lot about electric fields.
    Glad to see the spirit of invention out in the public arena.


  8. Wow!! Way to go guys – that’s so impressive.
    And DrugMonkey thanks for sharing with all of us who are NOt at SfN.


  9. DSKS Says:

    Hmmm… I think the feasibility of these experiments, and their relevance post zombocalypse, is attenuated by the likelihood that zombie neurons and myocytes don’t propagate action potentials.
    I think NIH funding will be more narrowly focused towards the innovative techniques and novel approaches pioneered by the laboratories of Prof. Bruce Cambell and co-workers.


  10. This is beautiful. I usually consider the CNS to be a huge confounder and remove it from any experimental preparation accordingly, but this is simply lovely.


  11. Tim, thanks for commenting here – and hey, DrugMonkey readers: go check out Marzullo’s blog! You’ve got to love a guy who posts about replacing his head gasket with pictures then talks about his dissertation where he writes lovingly of his master craftsman grandfather and closes with a passage from Thoreau (yes, Tim, I actually downloaded the whole sucker).
    Anyway, you could already tell the dept had no sense of humor in asking these guys to retract their original poster when the concept itself was published in the news section of Science a few weeks later. And, hey, I loved Tim’s clip from the other Science paper of the hippocampal spikes during surgery of the epileptic patient being shown pop culture videos – how did they know to use the Tom Cruise clip?


  12. Tim Marzullo Says:

    Thanks for the plug Abel. That’s a very nice complement; I glad you like my projects!
    DrugMonkey (or was it DrugMonkey?) and I talked more today, and I am thinking about next steps with this project. I want to get it fully operational, we are close, and we are still under $100. I can:
    1- Simply publish the detailed instructions so that other people can buy the parts and make it if they want
    2- Try to form some sort of company and sell either the kit for self-assembly or the whole rig pre-assembled.
    Still deciding what to do. Stay tuned! The response from educators has been rather overwhelming, one teacher going so far as to say, “I want this completely done and in my hands in 90 days.”


  13. scicurious Says:

    Fantastic! I’m so upset I had my blinders on and missed it. Thanks for the video, Tim!


  14. shocktherapy Says:

    Thanks for the video, Tim!
    That video did not do justice. They’d honed the performance by the time I saw it. Take it on the science standup circuit guys.


  15. Greg Gage Says:

    that’s true, shocktherapy. The entire presentation was an evolving performance.
    We will make a post-production youtube video like we did for our last year’s poster: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5B1dy7UJsGY


  16. […] Update for additional reading on Backyard Brains and Marzullo and Gage The $100 Spike The $100 SpikerBox […]


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