iOS app Android app More

TED Fellow Gregory Gage Brings Neuroscience To The Classroom With Backyard Brains (VIDEOS)

Greg Gage Ted

First Posted: 03/ 9/2012 7:06 pm Updated: 03/ 9/2012 7:06 pm

Neuroscience is still in the "dark ages" in terms of understanding the brain, according to Gregory John Gage.

He told HuffPost at this year's TED conference that any great thinker can be a great neuroscientist, but the field has far too few people working in it. But this doesn't have to be the case.

His goal is simple: Since many young people decide what to study and which career to pursue based on experiences when they are young, he hopes to inspire them to study the brain through experiments they can do at home at an early age.

Along with co-founder Tim Marzullo, Gage is one of the founders of Backyard Brains, a company that teaches middle-schoolers about neuroscience, and also sells do-it-yourself kits that allow them to conduct their own experiments.

This year, Gage was honored as one of 40 TED Fellows, and sat down with HuffPost to discuss some of his experiments and talk about Backyard Brains. The TED conference is an international gathering of thinkers, scientists and designers.

Asked about his initial inspiration, Gage said, "Scientific equipment in general is pretty expensive, but it's silly because before that I was an electrical engineer and you could see that you could make them yourself… So we started as a way to have fun, to show off to our colleagues, but we were also going into classrooms around that time and we thought, wouldn't it be cool if you could bring these gadgets with us so the stuff we were doing in advanced Ph.D. programs in neuroscience, you could also do in fifth grade?"

The first product they launched was a spiker box, which according to Gage, allows kids to record information from the brain like scientists in labs. The difference is, with a spiker box the recordings can come from insects, whereas in the lab they are using rats and monkeys.  

Gage demonstrated two experiments. First, listening to neurons firing from a cockroach leg. Second, using music to stimulate the muscles to make the roach leg dance to music. Both are explained in the Backyard Brains video below.

The grand finale, however, was the true cyborg: the "Robo Roach," which is a kit that allows students to send signals into a cockroach’s nervous system.

So what do you think?  Will these types of experiments get children interested in neuroscience and lead to future cures for Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases?  Or will it just lead to a lot of little Frankensteins?

Photo via TED Conference Flickr

Check out other awesome TED Talks in our slideshow below:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Lucianne Walkowicz

    At the July 2011 TEDGlobal conference, TED Fellow <a href="" target="_hplink">Lucianne Walkowicz</a> discussed how the Kepler mission has helped us discover many new, far-away planets that might be habitable.

  • Eythor Bender

    Berkeley Bionics' <a href="" target="_hplink">Eythor Bender</a> at the TED2011 conference introduced exoskeleton designs that can carry heavy loads, allowing humans to hold more than they can naturally carry or even helping those without the use of their legs to walk at last year.

  • Julian Assange

    Julian Assange, editor-in-chief for whistleblower site Wikileaks, took the stage in July 2010 for a <a href="" target="_hplink">surprise Q&A</a> with TED's Chris Anderson to discuss the aims of the site, how it operates and what it has accomplished.

  • Pattie Maes

    In February 2009, MIT's Pattie Maes shows off a wearable device called '<a href="" target="_hplink">Sixth Sense</a>,' which lets the user interact with digital information that is overlaid on the physical world.

  • Heather Knight

    Heather Knight was joined onstage in 2010 by a <a href="" target="_hplink">robot standup comic</a> named Data. The funny 'bot cracked jokes for the audience and adjusted its performance based on feedback from participants.

  • Eli Pariser

    At the TED2011 conference, <a href="" target="_hplink">Eli Pariser</a>, an online organizer and author of "<a href="" target="_hplink">The Filter Bubble</a>," made a strong case against personalized web services, which often sacrifice important information or world-broadening ideas for specific preferences assigned to each of us by algorithms.

  • Ralph Langner

    <a href="" target="_hplink">Ralph Langner</a>, a German security consultant who analyzed the complex <a href="" target="_hplink">Stuxnet computer virus</a> first discovered in 2010, more deeply explored how the virus works and what its purpose really is at last year's TED2011.

  • Cynthia Kenyon

    In the July 2011 TEDGlobal conference, biochemist and geneticist <a href="" target="_hplink">Cynthia Kenyon</a> explained the anti-aging effects of a mutation in a worm's DAF-2 gene and discussed what this might mean for human aging.

  • Anthony Atala

    In 2007, Anthony Atala explained the process and purpose of <a href="" target="_hplink">growing human organs</a> in a lab and introduced TED-goes to the gizmos that make this fascinating innovation possible.

  • Sheryl Sandberg

    Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg asked "<a href="" target="_hplink">why we have too few women leaders</a>" and presented three creative solutions in December 2010's TEDWomen conference.

  • Blaise Aguera y Arcas

    Blaise Aguera y Arcas demoed <a href="" target="_hplink">Photosynth</a> in 2007, showing audiences how 2D photos can be used to create stunning 3D worlds that users can explore digitally.

  • Jeff Han

    In February 2006, Jeff Han <a href="" target="_hplink">exhibited</a> his affordable high-res multi-touch display. The audience was blown away. The following year, Apple released its iPhone handsets, which featured a similarly equipped (though tinier) touch screen.

  • Brian Cox

    In 2008, Brian Cox spoke about his work on CERN's <a href="" target="_hplink">Large Hadron Collider</a>, which, he informed his audience, "is the largest scientific experiment ever attempted." During his presentation, Cox guided listeners through the project's challenges and goals.

  • Johnny Lee

    In 2008, Johnny Lee introduced his audience to <a href="" target="_hplink">Wii Remote hacks</a> and showed how to turn the relatively inexpensive controller into a variety of teaching tools, such as a whiteboard, a touch screen and a 3D viewer.

  • Carter Emmart

    In February 2010, Carter Emmart took his audience on a tour of the <a href="" target="_hplink">known universe in 3D</a>, a 12-year project that combined the efforts of scientists, artists and computer programmers.

  • Stephen Hawking

    Stephen Hawking's talk at TED2008 presented popular theories that attempt to answer some of humanity's most troublesome questions: "Where did we come from? How did the universe come into being? Are we alone in the universe? Is there alien life out there? What is the future of the human race?"

  • David Pogue

    In 2007, tech journalist David Pogue performed a delightful "<a href="" target="_hplink">TED medley</a>" about the history of music and television on the Internet.

  • Aparna Rao

    At the July 2011 TEDGlobal conference, TED Fellow and artist <a href="" target="_hplink">Aparna Rao</a> presented a handful of her art installations, which demonstrate the humorous side of technology.

  • Dennis Hong

    In February 2011, <a href="" target="_hplink">Dennis Hong</a> introduced a revolutionary idea that might allow blind people to drive. This can all be done <em>without</em> using self-driving car technology -- robotics, laser rangefinders, and GPS tools presented through a non-visual interface could allow blind drivers to perceive the road ahead and control the car all on their own.

  • Aimee Mullins

    In 2009, paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins trotted out her 12 pairs of <a href="" target="_hplink">prosthetic legs</a> and demonstrated how their various qualities enhance her body.

  • Peter Weyland (TED2023)

    Ok, so it's not a real TED talk, but this teaser for the upcoming film "<a href="" target="_hplink">Prometheus</a>" portrays the fictional "Peter Weyland" giving a rousing TED presentation in the year 2023. Conceived by Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof and directed by Luke Scot, Weyland speaks in the video about the creation of "cybernetic individuals who in a few short years will be completely indistinguishable from us." The tenor of the talk is a bit more sinister than we're used to seeing at TED, but it sure makes us want to see this movie. <a href="" target="_hplink">Visit the TED blog to explore more about this promo</a>.