Art+Science
backyard2
Backyard Brains: Neuroscience for Fun

The term Crowdscience (that is, the science of people) has recently become a very popular term [i]. It means that people (a nineteenth-century term that perhaps should be replaced with the term “citizens”), by actively taking part in research, can enable discoveries, that would otherwise not be possible with traditional media – for the mental, computational and economic resources they require. It also assumes that first-person participation in scientific projects is one of the few ways to not be relegated on the sidelines of democracy in a society permeated at all levels by scientific and technological knowledge.

As for the origin of crowdscience, some individuals focused on astronomy – with the SETI@Home experience back in the 1990s and the collaboration of nearly 3 million people to the study of space signals [ii] – others on other most disparate topics. A sure thing is that nowadays there exist a wide variety of crowdscience portals focusing on a wide range of fields [iii].

Neurosciences and especially neuroinformatics [iv] have their very own crowd versions. Among these, there is a case that is currently quite successful on the internet: the company Backyard Brains [v], founded by two students of the University of Michigan, Gregory Gage and Tim Marzullo.

How to describe it in two words? Take a little nerd environment in an American Pie (1999) style, mix it with a dose of hacker approach, add a pinch of craziness like Young Frankenstein (1974) and here is the result. If the entire information society is based, as Claude Shannon taught, on electrical signals [vi], if information processed by neurons, synapses and motor centers within our bodies belong to the same nature… then, why not connect the two worlds? You could get interesting results, such as a moving cockroach leg able to turn a knob or a squid chromatophores that pulsate and change color according to the notes of the hip hop band Cypress Hill.

What’s crucial is to know where to place our electrodes, of course, but as these peculiar researchers  have shown in several explanatory videos (as well as in their wiki), this doesn’t seem too difficult. Unless you’re talking about real human brains, but this will be discussed further on.

The Backyard Brains have recently launched a product for domestic use, called “SpikerBox” defined as “an open source low-cost bio-amplifier to increase public participation in the neurosciences” [vii]. The object is a circuit that uses an electric voltage between two appropriate points (eg. details of a muscle) to make something playable or viewable on an ordinary PC or Smartphone as a normal mp3 file.

Of course, this process can be reversed: it is possible to convert an audio input into a nervous stimulus. According to the creators, the product is designed especially for students and “geeks” of all ages and has introduced to date some 18,000 people to the “pleasure of listening to the pulse”.

We are also provided with a support package of tools and services, in addition to the traditional tools and know-how, including (at a cost of about $ 300) live demonstrations for science or biology classes in primary or secondary schools. In this way, it is possible to make household experiments that can be as fascinating as disturbing: a mixture of a chemistry class and a horror museum. It is perhaps difficult to explain it rationally because, compared to many other cases of mistreatment of animals that regularly come to record, these experiments seem harmless. Yet, they caused some discomfort, at least to myself.

The Backyard Brains – with its approach a bit naive and, perhaps, led by a certain degree of essentialism (see balance sheet data published online, and a statement that “we can cut the leg of the cockroach, it will grow back again”) – is, at the end, only a small raft in the ocean.

Can playing with arts, cockroaches or earthworms and electrical signals be considered sadistic? Well, think about those who work with these things for real, maybe in closed inaccessible laboratories or protected by military intelligence.

Not much is said about neurosciences, both in terms of possible perspectives (such as the possibility to care for neuro-degenerative diseases for which there are currently no effective treatments, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, amyotrophic etc…), and in terms of potential developments (cognitive capacities, emotions and behaviors modified for a wide variety of purposes). It is a discipline in rapid development [viii] that could radically change our life in a few years, or at least make us face new choices and possibilities – brain systems, cognitive capacity, and so on – that until now we thought belonged to the visionary genius of some science fiction authors.

“If by real you mean what we perceive, what we can smell, touch and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by the brain,” says Morpheus to the disciple Neo in the popular movie The Matrix (1999). Then it doesn’t matter if we go into some kind of research to feel that much of what is called “I” is, in fact, only electrical signals and information structures on which, today, very few know anything about besides the specialists [ix].

Creating a bottom up awareness, then, as those at Backyard Brains are doing, certainly will not save the world. It could, however, provide us with more choices while we head towards this emerging cyber humanity, much like what had happened with open source and proprietary systems in computer science. After all, even a weird contraption like SpikerBox should not be thrown away. Although, frankly, I didn’t really feel any urge to try it…


Notes:

[i] Jeffrey R. Young, “Crowd Science Reaches New Heights,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (2010), http://chronicle.com/article/The-Rise-of-Crowd-Science/65707/

[ii] “La ricerca di SETI@Home,” 2012, http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/sah_about.php

[iii] “Zooniverse, real science online,” 2012, https://www.zooniverse.org/

[iv]  Jeffrey L. Teeters, Kenneth D. Harris, K. Jarrod Millman, Bruno A. Olshausen, Friedrich T. Sommer, “Data sharing for computational neuro science”,  Neuroinformatics 1 (March 2008), 47-55.

[v] “Backyard Brains, Neuroscience for Everyone,” 2012, http://www.backyardbrains.com/Home.aspx

[vi] Shannon Claude e Weaver Warren, ed., The Mathematical Theory of Communication (University of Illinois Press 1963).

[vii] Timothy C. Marzullo, Gregory J. Gage, “The SpikerBox: A Low Cost, Open-Source BioAmplifier for Increasing Public Participation in Neuroscience Inquiry,” in PLoS ONE 7(3), http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0030837

[viii] “Neural-Prosthesis.Com”, 2012, http://neural-prosthesis.com/; Pagan Kennedy, “The Cyborg in Us All,” The New York Times (2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/the-cyborg-in-us-all.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[ix] “Study demonstrates how memory can be preserved — and forgetting prevented” (2011), http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-07/bidm-sdh070811.php

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