Backyard Brains – Gear for D.I.Y. Neuroscientists!

Gregory Gage

Gregory Gage is being honored as a Champion of Change for his dedication to increasing public engagement in science and science literacy.

Science has a rich history of everyday citizens assisting in great discoveries, and I am honored that our work to encourage amateur neuroscience has been selected by The White House for the Citizen Science Champion of Change award.  We know a lot about how our amazing brain works, but there is much, much more that remains to be discovered.  In fact, we have no cures and only insufficient treatments for neurological disorder, even though about 1 out of every 5 people will be diagnosed with a brain disease. Change is indeed needed in our nation’s approach to science education to bring more focus on neuroscience.  

I am a “DIY” neuroscientist. I co-founded a low-fi company called Backyard Brains with my grad-school labmate, Tim Marzullo. While working on our Ph.D., we would often go out to local public schools to talk about the importance of studying neuroscience. We developed our lesson plans using models and analogies about how the brain works, but what we really wanted to teach the students was “electrophysiology”... as this is truly is how the brain works.

The brain is an electrical organ, and the cells (neurons) communicate with “spikes”: a brief pulse of electricity. In my research at the university, I would record these spikes to learn what the neurons were telling us about how the brain worked. Traditionally, to do experiments with electrophysiology, one needs to be in a Ph.D. program and use expensive equipment (our electrophysiology rig cost $40,000). To make this accessible for our outreach goals, Tim and I set out on a self-imposed engineering challenge: to reduce this equipment down to the basic components, and record a spike for <$100. Less than a year later, we got our first prototype to work and were able to bring spikes into the classrooms! After getting requests from colleagues and teachers, we launched Backyard Brains. We are now a growing education company with neuroscience gear in over 45 countries on all 7 continents!

The goal of our company is to make low-cost, easy-to-use versions of the many neuroscience tools that we used at university.  We also want to make it easy for amateurs to learn how to use the tools for research. By partnering with teachers and artists, we have created lesson plans and guides for dozens of experiments. Each experiment demonstrates one basic principle about how the brain works, and we leave the experiments open-ended for students to explore and discover new things. From “spikes” to “cyborgs” to “neuroprosthetics”, there is an experiment of interest for everyone!

Understanding the brain remains a great challenge, both to professional neuroscientists and the general public alike. By increasing the public’s understanding of neuroscience and creating a community of amateur neuroscientists, we hope to encourage public participation into the fascinating field of neuroscience.

Gregory Gage is the Co-Founder of a DIY Neuroscience.

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