The Next Age of Neuroscience

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    The next age of neuroscience

The next age of neuroscience 02:56

By Greg Gage, Special to CNN

Our understanding of the brain is rapidly expanding. New tools and technologies coming online allow scientists to probe deeper into the microarchitecture of the circuits of our mind. It is an exciting time to be a neuroscientist, as over the past decade our knowledge has been rapidly growing.

But these discoveries and insights have all been limited to a small, select group of individuals that have dedicated their lives to study neuroscience in graduate school and become postdocs, researchers, and professors. While most everyone is fascinated by the brain, very few get the chance to peer into the world of neurons. Because, until now, there wasn’t a way for amateurs to get involved.

Throughout history, many great contributions to science and mathematics have been made by amateurs. For example, Thomas Bopp, a factory manager and an amateur astronomer co-discovered the great Comet Hale–Bopp of 1997. Amateur mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan made so many important discoveries that India has proposed that his birthday be declared the National Mathematics Day. The reason many amateurs can contribute to these fields in particular, is that the instrumentation is very affordable.

In astronomy, one needs a consumer telescope ($50 - $100), and in math, one needs only paper or a personal computer. For much of science, this is not the case. In neuroscience, for example, equipment to read out the brain activity can cost over $10,000. But this is beginning to change. With the DIY revolution, people can now have similar high-tech gear in their own homes and garages for under $100.

    When I was a grad student studying neuroscience my labmate, Tim Marzullo, proposed an interesting idea: Can we record from the brain for less than 100 dollars, just using everyday electronics? We set off on a self-imposed engineering challenge to see if we could replicate our expensive lab equipment with something affordable by consumers.

    We ended up with the SpikerBox: a small kit (which you can build yourself, if you like) that can listen to the living brain cells from insects. You can use your smartphone, iPad, or computer to also see and record this activity in real time. After a few minutes, you can start to understand the basic principles of how neurons encode information, and how remarkable the brain can be.

    Greg and Tim with the first SpikerBox prototypes in 2008.

    To get an idea of how this works, we should first discuss some background on neurons. In the nervous system, neurons are specialized cells that consist of a body, dendrites, and a long axon. Axons are the long nerve fibers through which the neuron sends electrical impulses (called “action potentials” or “spikes”, see below) from the cell body all the way to another neuron.

    When the action potential reaches the end of an axon, a chemical message gets sent to the next cell across the small space between them (called the “synapse”). On the other side of the synapse lies the dendrite of the next cell. The dendrite receives these chemicals, which then change the amount of electricity inside of the cell body. Once the electricity is high enough, they send off an electrical “spike” and the process continues.

    Human and insect neurons are remarkably similar in their build and function, which allows us to use insects as a model to understand how the human brain works. Our SpikerBox amplifies the tiny voltage from a spike and makes it large enough so that one can see and hear how the neurons communicate.

    A sketch of a typical neuron. Also a drawing of an action potential or Spike

    Like the telescope, the SpikerBox is a simple tool, but it allows anyone to begin exploring and making their own predictions. In the few short years since starting on this venture, high school students have made suggestions and have contributed to developing new experiments that highlight new areas of the nervous system.

    The SpikerBox connected to an iPad showing the Spikes of cockroach neurons in the backyard.

    Why do we need this new amateur age in Neuroscience? While our understanding of the brain is growing rapidly, we are still in the dark ages when it comes to afflictions that affect the brain. One out five of us, that’s 20%, will be diagnosed with a brain disorder that still has no cures. By getting more people involved with the public participation of neuroscience, we can inspire those interested to become a neuroscientist, or perhaps even an amateur discovery in Neuroscience!