Neuroscience is a rapidly growing field, but one that is usually thought to be too complex and expensive for average Americans to participate in directly. Now, an explosion of cheap scientific devices and online tutorials are on the verge of changing that. This change could have exciting implications for our future understanding of the brain.
From 1995 to 2005, the amount of money spent on neuroscience research doubled. A lot of that research used medical devices, like MRI and CT Scan machines, and drugs that everyday citizens don’t have access to. Even in colleges, experience with powerful research equipment is reserved for upperclassmen and graduate students. The lowlier castes can work with models or dissect animal brains, but as scientist and engineer Greg Gage points out in this TED video, the brain isn’t like the heart or the lungs. You can’t tell how it works just by looking at it.
Gage is calling for “neuro-revolution,” in which scientists and inventors come together to put the tools for learning neuroscience into the hands of the public. He may be onto something too, because those tools are looking more accessible than ever before.
One of the most well publicized examples of this punk rock revolution has been Gage’s own “SpikerBox,” which he co-developed with Tim Marzullo. Roughly the size of your fist, the SpikerBox is a small collection of electronic components bolted between two squares of orange plastic. Coming out of one end are two pins that you can use to record the electrical activity of nerve cells in, say, a recently severed cockroach leg. There’s also a port that allows you to attach the box to a smartphone or tablet, and watch the spikes of activity as the neurons are stimulated.
The SpikerBox is produced by Backyard Brains, a company that, according to their official copy, grew out of a desire to more easily demonstrate how neuroscience works during outreach events. They designed the SpikerBox as a $100 alternative to complicated laboratory rigs that can cost tens of thousands. They’ve donated a number of their boxes to educational organizations around the world. A recent Kickstarter campaign by a Harvard professor surpassed its $10,000 goal to bring SpikerBoxes to 100 participants in a massive, open online course about neuroscience.
If you don't want to buy a SpikerBox, you can always build your own. The Public Library of Science (with the full cooperation of Backyard Brains) has published a complete set of instructions on how to do so. This makes it one of many online tutorials that could be of interest to a budding neuroscientist. Other devices you can learn how to build include a mask that monitors the stages of sleep to help induce lucid dreaming, and a device that uses a 9-volt battery to electrically stimulate the brain. This Instructables page teaches people to convert an electric wheelchair so that it can be operated by thought alone.
In many ways, neuroscientific devices seem to be following the same path as the computer. What was once the sole purview of giant corporations and Ivy League universities is rapidly becoming a set of playthings for suburban tinkerers. Will the future see a brain scanning device in every home? Probably not. After all, watching your brainwaves scribble across a screen doesn’t have the same utility as, say, email. But it’s looking increasingly likely that we could see a brain scanning device in any home, regardless of their educational or financial background.
Neuroscience sets out to address questions that overlap with biology, chemistry, physics, pharmacology, psychology, computer science and medicine. Each of these disciplines requires a different way of thinking about the world. Only a diverse group of scientists, with diverse views, will have any hope of tackling the complicated problems that are just around the bend. By lowering the barriers to exploring neuroscience, the current DIY explosion could bring more people to the field than ever before. That means better science for everyone.
The new technologies aren’t without their drawbacks and controversies. Some have reacted squeamishly to another product produced by Backyard Brains, known as RoboRoach. The kit requires the user to glue a small chip to the back of a cockroach, and poke several wires into its antennae and thorax. If they do it correctly, they can wirelessly control some of the roach’s movements from a smartphone. Despite a set of ethical guidelines published on the Backyard Brains website, critics have called the product cruel, even sociopathic.
There are safety concerns as well. Do it yourself brain stimulation has something of a cult following online because of the suggestion that it can cheaply and effectively improve mental performance. Hobbyists have embraced the technology, despite the fact that its long-term effects are unknown. The trend prompted a recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics suggesting that doctors and lawmakers take a cautious middle path between excessive regulation and laissez-faire disregard.
More broadly, we should take some time to consider what a DIY neuroscience revolution cannot accomplish. Home tinkering, no matter how passionate, cannot replace a good science education. Students still need to learn how to generate hypotheses, control variables and pick apart their own prized theories until they arrive at something credible. Neuroscience is already a field that is thought of as data-rich but theory-poor. Despite decades of research, brain scientists still lack a central set of ideas, like natural selection or relativity, that allow them to organize their findings and make new predictions. If we're not diligent about promoting scrupulous science, cheaper research tools could inflame this problem to mind-boggling proportions.
Hopefully the diversity of opinions found in modern neuroscience will succeed in balancing enthusiasm with prudence. And hopefully these devices will inspire a new batch of students. In the meantime, they make damn cool toys.