Yeah! The $100 Spike Doods land SBIR Funding!!!!!

April 17, 2011

Comrade PhysioProf alerted me to a new entry in RePORTER:

DESCRIPTION (provided by applicant): Understanding the brain remains a great challenge for treatment of nervous system afflictions and humanistic reasons of comprehending the natural world. Basic neuroscience, though, is typically not taught until advanced college. We hypothesize such paucity in neuroscience education is due to the lack of simple, compelling, inexpensive tools for secondary school students to investigate and understand the brain. To address this need, we have invented the “SpikerBox”: a bio-amplifier that is easy-to-use, inexpensive (<$100), portable, and can detect and record the spiking activity (action potentials) of invertebrates such as crickets and cockroaches. We now aim: 1. To develop the full lesson materials including curricula, lesson plans, lab books, and assessments to allow our SpikerBox to be used in classrooms as an enabling tool to teach neuroscience. 2. To develop easy-to-use data analysis software to accompany the SpikerBox and allow basic neural analysis routines on an iPad or standard laptop. 3. To develop prototypes of the "RoboRoach," a kit modified from off-the-shelf remote control toys that mounts on a cockroach, delivers pulses to the antennae nerves, and allows remote control of cockroach locomotion. Such a preparation is a useful tool for teaching about microstimulation, electronics, and behavior. By allowing secondary school students to learn about the brain by performing real electrophysiology experiments in the classroom, we will increase understanding and retention of neuroscience concepts at an early age. As neuroscience is a multi-disciplinary field encompassing biology, mathematics, and engineering, our "SpikerBox" and "RoboRoach" kits may have the effect of improving performance in STEM-related disciplines and inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. PUBLIC HEALTH RELEVANCE: Backyard Brains will develop a "SpikerBox" kit with electronics, learning materials, and software to allow secondary school students to investigate the living nervous system of insects in the classroom. By allowing these students to do what was previously only available in advanced college, we aim to inspire the next generation of scientists, physicians, and engineers, as well as accelerate fundamental neuroscience research.

They’ve come a long way from a hilarious poster presentation on neuroscience in the wake of the coming zombie apocalypse, eh?
SBIR program of the NIH

Backyard Brains

No Responses Yet to “Yeah! The $100 Spike Doods land SBIR Funding!!!!!”

  1. Beaker Says:

    It won’t be long now until some teabagger congressman stands on the floor of the House and announces that “a quarter million of your taxpayer dollars were spent to teach Jr high and high school students how to record electricity from cockroaches!!!”


  2. BikeMonkey Says:

    …how to *electrocute* roaches.



  3. Beaker Says:

    Yes of course. I am humbled. This is the frame. Can we record from stinkbugs or bedbugs in order to make it more relevant to the needs of ‘Merca?


  4. Martin S Says:

    I’ve read about the SpikerBox before and have a big issue with the project that I want to elaborate on:
    The idea of more neuroscience being tought is great and the device is pretty neat! My first reaction was almost sympathetic as I’m a big OpenEEG fan! (A modified version of which would make a better, cheaper, more secure etc device.)
    But it’s a double-edged sword:
    As a cognitive neuroscience grad student I’m working under the strict supervision of the standing ethics committee of our university which is collaborating closely with the researchers who actually work with animals. Together, they take outermost care to ensure that as few animals as possible are used, that they are treated as humanely as possible, and that ethical, legal, and scientific obligations are fulfilled. This can hardly be enforced in any setting besides that of a university. I believe that, to any scientist with a firm commitment to ethical animal research, the idea of DIY animal experimentation feels somehow deeply appalling.
    Why do we need to incorporate actual animal research into entry-level (apparently even kindergarten) neuroscience education anyways? The gain of animal use is disputable. The outcomes from experiments within undergraduate courses are never novel, they are outlined within the curriculum. In my experience, a well-made simulation software (eg. Sniffy The Virtual Rat) does a really good job in small workshop courses. Different ‘experimental conditions’ can be easily simulated with a model. You also don’t get any ‘messed up’ datasets because of some mysterious uncontrolled factor. Most importantly, it’s ethically sound because no animals are harmed. Additionally, students, who would otherwise choose not to participate due to ethical concerns, are also be able to benefit from this experience.

    I do like the attitude of opening up ‘things’ and playing with the internals to see how they work out of pure curiosity. But animals are not ‘things’ and animal experimentation is supposed to be far from playful. I agree with the notion of teaching neuroscience concepts at an ‘early age’. But under no circumstances do I believe that introducing yet another type of vivisection into US classrooms is either, necessary or sufficient to ‘increase understanding and retention’. Ethical use of animals is a very important concept indeed and we should take very good care how students retain it.

    The fact that the SpikerBox has been granted funding to be lifted into the classroom worries me. Its actual implementation would clearly constitute a step back and not forward in science education.


  5. There are no “ethical issues” in relation to doing experiments on cockroaches and crickets.


  6. pinus Says:

    Vivisection? Cockroaches? Are you serious? I am with cPP here.


  7. Martin S Says:

    That you would think so beautifully illustrates my point.

    But here, let me help you out, maybe you just lack the info:


  8. becca Says:

    There are no legal requirements in relation to doing experiments on cockroaches and crickets. That is not the same thing as there being no ethical issues.

    I will argue that the presence of the neurocircuitry under study introduces enough of a *question* of feeling something like pain that there are some ethical issues at stake.

    It may also be worth noting that cockroaches and crickets are insects some people keep as *pets*. Therefore, I would put forth that the emotional impact on *humans* of working with these animals may be worth paying attention to. In the same way killing dogs generally has more impact than killing mice, killing crickets might have more of an impact than say, killing fruitflies. It’s hard (for me, personally) to see why on earth there *are* pet hissing cockroaches, but I think it’s worth trying to understand various perspectives.


  9. DrugMonkey Says:

    Martin S,

    Would you be happier if one of the teaching units they included is something on the ethics of the use of animals in research?

    Keep in mind that school classrooms everywhere have class pets, hatching chicks is a very popular classroom activity still (and Sharon Astyk over at Casabon’s Book had a very nice bit awhile back about what happens to those) and, of course school campuses rigorously eliminate cockroaches, mice and other vermin all the time.

    I’m going to have to check out the Sniffy program ( because I have a very vivid interest in this particular model. It is very good at introducing undergrads in psych 101 to the principles of conditioning. One of the most important things that undergrads learn in this lab is how easy it is to reinforce the wrong thing, inter and intrasubject differences, etc. Basically, what goes wrong. So I’ll be looking to see how much weird, alternate behavior this program can cover. Is there a Pecky the Pigeon to go with it? Because even with very basic operants, students find out a lot about species differences and how principles generalize or not across these differences.


  10. DrugMonkey Says:

    There are no legal requirements in relation to doing experiments on cockroaches and crickets. That is not the same thing as there being no ethical issues.

    I agree. Same question for you, would you take this as an opportunity to address animal-use ethics?


  11. brooksPhD Says:


    read your IACUC more carefully before making comments like these.


  12. Martin S Says:

    Thanks for your reply!

    First I want to stress that I’m not arguing against the use of animals in scientific research, or that the development of low-cost electrophysiology tools is not somehow cool. These are entirely different subjects altogether. The argument is more along the lines of: The fact that the project, as it stands, is being funded by the NIH and endorsed by the SfN is a disgrace for the field of neuroscience and a slap in the face of the researchers who have been involved in the development of alternatives to the use of animals for education and the development of common standards in animal research ethics. (As a consequence I’m looking into terminating my SfN membership.).
    To be honest, it would not make really me happier if they just included animal research ethics. (I actually thought that would be a given…) Teaching for example the three R’s ( would be important, indeed. However, they are incommensurable with DIY animal experimentation, so teaching them in this context would be hypocrisy.

    I reject the class-pet argument as unsound because I don’t accept the premise that the practice is ethically unquestionable. (It also seems to be more of a US thing I think, it’s rarely, if ever, done where I come from.)
    The pest argument is invalid because pest control is necessary for health reasons and is not to be confused with scientific advancement. If you do something in the name of science, different rules apply.
    The argument that cockroach experiments are somehow granted ethical immunity was properly dismantled by becca who said exactly what an ethics committee would say: […] the presence of the neurocircuitry under study introduces enough of a *question* of feeling something like pain that there are some ethical issues at stake. (Thanks, dr.becca, and congrats on the tenure track position!)

    I agree that undergrad activities require quite elaborate models if you want to teach students what they really need to know. Good to know that you are interested in alternatives, check out the EurCa database of animal models for education!
    I’m not sure about Pecky the Pidgeon but you could ask the NIH for a 250.000$ grant to write even more elaborate and engaging virtual models…. but wait… that money already went to the guys of Backyard Brain Inc.


  13. becca Says:

    I think it’s a very important opportunity to address animal-use ethics. Though it may be sub-optimal as an opportunity to encourage people to look favorably on research. I remember being very disturbed at the use of animals for dissection in educational settings. It seemed to me, and still does, that the benefits for educational uses of dissecting a fetal pig in bio101 are much lower than for say, drug testing of something designed to treat a life threatening illness. Though of course the costs (financial and ethical, if we are comparing bunnies to cockroaches) are also lower.
    Is the “roboroach” the best public relations foot that neuroscience can put forward, when ‘gee wiz’ *and* ethics and utility are all taken into account?

    It reminds me of the Science Cheerleaders. I can see why it would be great for a certain audience, but that audience might be slightly… uhm… different from me.


  14. becca Says:

    NB: becca and Dr. Becca are two different people. I can claim no reasonable authority until the albatross of thesis is done. Also, Dr. Becca is approximately infinitely cooler than, and I would not wish to usurp her authority-by-coolness either.
    /record straight


  15. Martin S Says:

    Alright, my bad, sorry for the sloppy journalism! 😀


  16. Beaker Says:

    Oh please don’t frame this as “animals.” We have a continuum, from virus to bacteria to protozoan to plants to yeast to metazoans, to vertebrates to mammals to primates to human primates. Every person has a place on this continuum at which they “draw the line” for what is ethically acceptable with in terms of vivisection.

    We are talking about freaking cockroaches. I wager that 95% of the people on the face of the earth have no problem with “injecting current” into dissected, live cockroaches. Do we capitulate to the 5% who do have a problem with this? If you answer yes, then think of all of the other issues that have the support of an extreme minority of the population. This is is not an”important opportunity to address animal-use ethics.” This is much ado about nothing. I say give the Spike Doods a million, and teach the children some real physiology.


  17. zbreeze Says:

    I think there are ethical issues w/ experimenting with cockroaches, just as there are w/ swatting those fruit flies that appear in our house in September or eating chickens. Kids should think about the ethics with their parents. If I did this experiment with my kids, I’d certainly discuss the issues.

    But there shouldn’t be any legal issues, and there aren’t.

    The messy uncontrolled factors that don’t mess up simulated data sets are exactly why we should have experiments like this.

    I’ve never understood why a society that eats pigs would think twice about dissecting dead ones to learn. And I suspect spike box has as much chance of having any ecological impact on cricket as I do of sprouting wings.


  18. Neuro-conservative Says:

    The fact that people would even come onto a blog to discuss the “ethical issues” surrounding cockroaches demonstrates the fundamental intellectual bankruptcy of the “animal rights” movement. I am embarrassed for you.


  19. I would be merely embarrassed, too, if these people weren’t so dangerous and evil, hiding their fundamental hatred for humanity behind a facade of “concern for animals”. Despicable scum like Martin S don’t give a single flying fucke about animals suffering or anything of the like. They just want a veneer of moral superiority to excuse their violent aggression towards other human beings. It’s absolutely identical to the religious scum who claim to want to “protect the unborn”, when all they really want to do is violently punish women.


  20. anon Says:

    Yes. Hypocrites are not, precisely, undergoing extinction.


  21. Martin S Says:

    >>Kids should think about the ethics with their parents.
    So ethics have no place in school or science?

    >>But there shouldn’t be any legal issues, and there aren’t.
    – Yes there should be, and there are. Using the device as advertised in an educational setting would be illegal in half of Europe.

    >>The messy uncontrolled factors that don’t mess up simulated data sets are exactly why we should have experiments like this.
    – Yes, in a university setting, for people who actually DO experiments.

    >>And I suspect spike box has as much chance of having any ecological impact on cricket as I do of sprouting wings.
    – It’s not about ecology or animal rights, it’s about scientific integrity.


  22. Martin S Says:

    I wonder where you get the animal rights thing from…
    CPP’s reasoning is exactly the kind of reasoning why I think Critical Thinking & Logic courses should be mandatory for in all scientific undergrad curricula. (Although most of the undergrad students I have tutored behaved a tiny bit more mature then this guy.)

    Again, I’m discussing scientific integrity, not animal rights. (Since those seem pretty well established and maintained, at least where I come from.)


  23. Martin S Says:

    I don’t need to do that, as I science in a country in Europe. In most countries here, the laws would not allow any invasive animal experiments in school. The IACUC makes a distinction between vertebrates and invertebrates that exempts animal experiments with invertebrates from needing expert supervision. This is definitely not the case here.


  24. Martin S Says:

    >>I wager that 95% of the people on the face of the earth have no problem with “injecting current” into dissected, live cockroaches. Do we capitulate to the 5% who do have a problem with this?
    – This argument is flawed on so many levels I don’t even know where to begin.


  25. Martin S Says:

    Just one more thing I will have to add before I stop to feed the trolls.

    The question must be: What do we gain from using cockroaches here? Science says: nothing. Show me one relevant study that documents a superiority on live animal experiments over a virtual demonstration in an educational setting. Here is a review for you to get started on:
    Patronek, G.J., und A. Rauch: Systematic review of comparative studies examining alternatives to the harmful use of animals in biomedical education. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 230(1), 2007, 37-43.

    What neuroscientific concept is it exactly that you can better demonstrate to a secondary school student better with a live cockroach then in a virtual model? Local signaling, propagated signaling, synaptic integration? Give me one 12 year old who has gained vast insight into the Hodgkin-Huxley model because of cockroach-crackle experiments.

    However there are always a few people who have some special pleasure from this kind of experiment. They might indeed retain their enthusiasm after getting a sniff of this kind of science. (Although most have them probably have some previous research experience in the field of optics, investigating the effects of sunlight on ants in the focal point of a converging lens.) I remember one grad student who desperately tried to get into pain research with rats. His supervisor mumbled something along the lines of ‘fucked up childhood…’ and wrote him a good recommendation letter as soon as possible. I think he rots in some corporate lab.

    So well thanks for the update on the state of affairs here, I rest my case. Best of luck in your prospective careers, Martin out. 🙂


  26. Martin S Says:

    The Dunning Kruger effect inevitably comes to mind.


  27. pinus Says:

    Wow, so only sociopaths with fucked up childhoods do pain research?


  28. You’re a lying scumbag.


  29. A colleague pointing me this Drug Monkey post to me just yesterday, so, unfortunately a bit late, I am now responding. One of the points raised is “so what can students learn from this?” We ship an experimental manual to all our customers, and you can view the online version here:

    You can judge whether this is valuable. One the aims of this grant is determine if our experiments in a classroom improve retention of neuroscience concepts. Operationally, the answer is “Of Course!” as kids are often blown away by “peering into the void” as it were, but as scientists we are doing the formal study to show this. Ask me again in two years.

    The biggest concern I have with Martin S’s continued comments are not the animal rights issues, but the underlying theme I sense that “science should stay in a university, under tight beauracratic control, and only be done by professional scientists.”

    Which makes my blood pressure rise. I wanted to be an electrophysiologist since high school (you can read my college exam essays if you disagree), but it wasn’t until the summer between my junior and senior year, after I had banged on doors of multiple labs, and worked in 2 chemistry labs to get “experience,” that finally a neuroscience professor gave me the benefit of the doubt and let me into a lab to do neurophysiology. And, finally, I saw my first spike!, and my life inflected.

    If astronomy were like neuroscience, you’d have to get a Ph.D., or beg someone else with Ph.D, to look through a telescope. Not only does such a system of science provide a huge barrier to entry to anyone even remotely interested in the brain, I wholeheartedly believe it slows down innovation in our field.

    Back on the animal ethics issue, the cockroach is the best prep I could find that limits animal exploitation but can still demonstrate electrophysiology. EEGs are too noisy and simply not compelling in a classroom environment. Cockroaches are fine with 1-2 legs missing, and nymphs can grow them back. A similar internet discussion arose on BoingBoing when I posted the RoboRoach prototype two months ago. Here’s what I said then:

    “I’m not shocking the cockroach. I am stimulating locomotion neural circuits in the antenna with tiny electrical pulses. The cockroaches only have the backpacks on for a couple minutes. The cockroaches are not killed. They are allowed to retire and make cockroach babies and live out the remainder of the cockroach lives eating organic lettuce and carrots and playing in small wooden jungle gyms. I’m serious.

    What’s the point of all this? It’s to teach high school students about principles of microstimulation of neurons, the proper stimulation frequencies, the proper circuit design, basic neurophysiology, etc. This type of research is typically only done at large research universities, and we are bringing such neurotechnology into high schools to accelerate public understanding of neuroscience. Similar neural implants are used to treat Parkinson’s disease, depression, and deafness. The technology is very crude. With more students working on the problems of nervous system manipulation and treatment, progress will undoubtedly be made. 1 in 4 people will be affected by a nervous system affliction in their lifetimes, and the current treatments available if you have a problem with neuronal function are very poor. Ask anyone who has a relative with mental illness, dementia, or stroke. Are you satisfied with the state of neuroscience treatment today?”



  30. drugmonkey Says:

    Very well said, Tim. You are a great person to have interfacing with curious students. Best of luck with the next two years.


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