Rob: First, could you just give us a little background about Backyard Brains?
Tim: Yeah, certainly. My good friend and lab-mate Gregory Gage and I did a lot of high school outreach in the Michigan area when we were doing our graduate work at the University of Michigan, but we’d always give these kinds of lectures about what we did as scientists, but we never were actually able to show what neural signals actually look like. So we built some prototypes to show the electrical activity of cockroaches because they are kind of easy to demonstrate. And the excitement from the community on our first few prototypes was such that we decided after we finished our doctorates to start a small educational science company called Backyard Brains.
So that was three years ago. And we are most famous and our flagship invention is the SpikerBox which is a simple bio amplifier that allows people to amplify and record electrical signals generated by neurons typically insects, but it can be used on basically any animal. Since then, we have released a number of other products – one allows you to record the muscle activities of humans, and that’s increasingly becoming our most popular product for obvious reasons, you don’t have to mess around with insects. But our edgiest product is called the RoboRoach which is a small backpack we’ve designed that allows you to stimulate the antenna nerves of cockroaches, and for a couple of minutes you can control the cockroach’s movements. We’ve had prototypes that we sold about the past year and a half, but it has been kind of a simple analog electronic device but we are releasing a new version soon, that is much more powerful.
Rob: How do you remotely control the roaches? How does that hook to the antennas?
Tim: So the cockroach antennae are hollow tubes fluid filled structures with a nerve running down the inside of it. So we clip the antenna and insert a fine silver wire into the adult cockroach and we just have a small little connector that fits on the head of the cockroach, and that is a permanent connector, but the cockroach is fine – I have had cockroaches live until they basically die of old age with this connector on their head. And then when you want to do the experiment or a demonstration you plug in the small backpack which is a little circuit that uses a very famous chip called the 555 timer and delivers 55 Hz pulses.
And to do this, we use a Hexburg Inchworm remote controlled toy you can buy at Radio Shack, and we just take the circuit board out of that, and that uses infrared signal much like your TV remote control to activate the circuit. But that’s powering motors, so that is DC which is not good for neural tissue, so we just made our own circuit that goes on top of this toy circuit that converts the direct current into 55 Hz pulses of alternating current which is safe and will excite the neural tissue without damaging it. And so when you put this backpack on and when the cockroach is moving you apply some light stimulations to the nerves and the cockroach will turn. The reason that works behaviorally we believe is because when a cockroach runs and its antenna hits a wall, it will turn and run in the opposite direction of that wall, so we are kind of exploiting the cockroach’s natural behavior by artificial stimulating this turning circuit using the antenna nerves.
Rob: So your device basically makes it turn right or left?
Tim: Uh huh.
Rob: And what’s new about the new version?
Tim: Okay, so as I said before the SpikerBoxes are our flagship product because it is a useful scientific tool. It is an amplifier, it amplifies very small electrical signals, so whenever you experiment you can conceive of where you need to amplify the small electrical signals generated by a neuron, you can use it. So most scientific tools are amplifiers of some sort, you know, a telescope amplifies the very far, a microscope amplifies the very small. The RoboRoach that we currently have can stimulate at any frequency in amplitude so long as it is 55 Hz and 1 milliamp.
So the RoboRoach is kind of an edgy, cool neural interface invention that gets the public and high school kids excited about combining electronics with biological interfaces, all the cyborg, science fiction type stuff. But as a scientific tool it is actually not that interesting because it only does one thing. And so neurons are very sensitive to stimulation frequency, they are sensitive to the actual amplitude or volume of that stimulation so by using a Bluetooth chip we can make the circuit smaller, so 4.5 gm. which is pretty small, a cockroach can carry that, and using your phone you can program any frequency you want at any amplitude you want.
And now it is actually a scientific tool in that scientists and educators can use it to investigate the neural substrates of behavior. Because you can put it really on any insect large enough to carry it like a beetle and then advanced scientists at universities can certainly use it on their other experiments for example, investigating how rats encode memory. So we are pretty excited about this. It takes the RoboRoach from an edgy, weird demo to an actual powerful scientific tool. I am pretty excited about it. It is something I want for my own experiments. So we think it will be pretty significant.
Rob: So you could use this technology on things other than roaches?
Tim: Yeah, I mean it is a neural stimulator that is 4.5 gm. and works over Bluetooth 4, so it has a pretty large range and also products like this exist like scientists use remote wireless neural stimulators all the time, but they tend to be very expensive due to the small markets and stuff, so they are usually between $1000 and $3000 and they use proprietary software and it is kind of awkward, so using kind of a nice intuitive phone like interface combined with this very light weight backpack, people can use it to study locomotion by stimulating spinal circuits, they can use it to study for example, we have a scientist in California who has been using old versions of the RoboRoach to study swimming circuits in turtles. So it could be used on really any creature, but of course since we do a lot of outreach we focus on insects, but scientists all over the world can use it on whatever experiments they want to.
Rob: And do you also sell the cockroaches for it?
Tim: Yes. So if you go to All Hands Active, which you’ve been to a couple of times before, you will see roachariums of cockroaches. So we sell the cockroaches too. So if you go to our website all our products are scientific tools, but you can actually buy cockroaches from us. Sometimes we ship them ourselves. And we first used to ship them ourselves, but we have a supplier in Arizona who supplies insects and scorpions and all kinds of things to zoos and movie studios, so whenever we get an order he ships it out on our behalf. We don’t sell the pre-implanted roaches, so when you buy a RoboRoach you have to do the surgery yourself just because we are not really sure why, but the effectiveness of the stimulation degrades over time of about a week, and that might be due to the electrodes corroding silver wires in a salty environment tend to corrode, that might be one thing, and so we are slowly investigating what is actually happening at the neural interface level.
Rob: Is it reasonably easy to add electrodes?
Tim: Yes. So it takes about one or two practices to do it. We’ve had 10 year olds do the surgery. And so I usually make the analogy that if you’ve ever built a model like a car, model car, or a model airplane it requires basically the same motor skills as that, so if you like using your hands to build things, it is not really a challenge at all.
Rob: And it doesn’t permanently hurt the roach?
Tim: No we only use adults. Because we have fixed the connection to its head, so a cockroach grows by molting like invertebrates, so when it molts it splits its exoskeleton and a bigger cockroach comes out, but when we glue this thing to its head, of course it can’t split its exoskeleton so it has to be on an adult that is not going to molt anymore, and you can tell an adult cockroach by the fact that it has wings. So you will see on all our videos on our website, it is only on adult roaches. If you saw on the email I had a link on my signature, for a TEDx talk I gave in Argentina and that roach that is in that video (I gave that talk in October) and just last week, this cockroach passed away, I guess, it just died of old age; cockroaches live about two to three years. So he had reached the end of his happy cockroach life.