Written By Heather M. Higgins, CNN
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Video Edited By Nina Raja, CNN
A video of rainbow-pigmented cells opening and closing to the deep bass beats of an iconic 1990s rap hit has 2.1 million views on YouTube -- all because a Michigan-based neuroscientist is using it to teach a new generation of young people about the brain.
“If you have an idea that involves the nervous system and electricity you can do that with very, very cheap parts - that’s the insight,” said Alex Wiltschko, a PhD student at Harvard University. “So you can clip a wire onto a squid and pump in Cypress Hill into this squid’s membrane and see its colors react, see the chromatophores open and close to the music.”
The science behind this phenomenon is explained by Greg Gage, the co-founder of Backyard Brains, the company he created to democratize neuroscience education.
“The reason why it’s dancing to the music is that at that frequency, the low frequencies have long wave forms. Those long wave forms allow current to pass by, which causes an action potential, which causes the muscles inside the chromatophores to open for that brief moment of time,” Gage said.
Cypress Hill’s "Insane in the Brain" has perfect bass and was a logical music choice for Gage, whose sister regularly jokes with him about his "insane membranes."
The video instantly gets people’s attention and has proven to be a great teaching tool.
Gage’s inspiration to educate came from the realization that the advanced and expensive lab equipment he used as a graduate student could be replicated in less than a day and for a fraction of the cost. The result of his vision is the SpikerBox – a $100 device that shows how neurons fire.
Wiltschko did some work for Gage when he was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. He says the idea for Backyard Brains was hatched on the back of a napkin at a bar near the Ann Arbor campus.
Wiltschko also designed the company’s iPhone app.
“We made an iPhone app that allows you to put the electricity from a nerve cell into the headphone jack of an iPhone,” Wiltschko said, “The purpose of the app is to be able to visualize neural activity right on your iPhone and to also be able to record it.”
One of Gage’s goals is to get children talking about the brain at an early stage and actually do hands-on experiments. He believes a better understanding of the nervous system could help solve devastating neurological disorders and disease.
“When I think of Greg I definitely think of him as innovative -- especially with respect to what he’s doing right now,” said Wiltschko. “Nobody had even come close to thinking about this idea to really bring science to non-scientists.”
You can learn more about Backyard Brains and the fascinating experiments Greg Gage is teaching his students on "The Next List," this Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on CNN.