10/09/2013 11:59 am ET

Backyard Brains Creates Do-It-Yourself Cyborg Cockroaches

Cockroaches finally have a purpose.

Starting next month, the folks at Backyard Brains, a Michigan-based company that brings neuroscience to a commercial audience, will unveil its latest creation: remote-controlled cockroaches. It's not science fiction, it's just science.

Co-founders Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo developed a circuit backpack that can be placed on a cockroach surgically by inserting a small wire into the insect's antennae, allowing the backpack to communicate directly to the neurons through small electrical pulses.

Users can then use a remote to control the roach's movements for a short time. The microstimulation used to move the roach is the same neurotechnology used to treat Parkinson's Disease, and is also used in Cochlear Implants, according to the team's Kickstarter page.

Marzullo spoke to HuffPost Weird about the learning benefits of a remote-controlled cockroach, or "RoboRoach."

"Students as young as 13 can learn about electric signals in the brain," Marzullo says. "RoboRoach is the first experiment that actually has a cockroach walking around, manipulating its behavior by stimulating nerves. It allows users to learn about neurons in the brain and even micro-circuitry by studying the device itself."

Marzullo says he has a passion for bringing neuroscience into high school classrooms and homes for children and adults alike hoping to learn more about how our brains work.

"I wanted to be a neuroscientist since I was a high school student, but it took me until late undergrad," he says. "I was willing to bang on doors for two years to get into a neuroscience lab. We try to make [RoboRoach] as simple as possible so that people now have access to a technology once kept behind closed doors."

The co-founder stressed that the 100-500 microamps used to signal the roaches' neurons is not a shock, but a stimulation. The insect adapts within one to two minutes of having the wires connected to its antennae. After about 20 minutes, the roach will eventually ignore the signals, having fully adapted to the stimulation. Marzullo and Gage then retire those roaches, allowing them to spend the rest of their lives breeding.

"It's hard for animals to adapt to pain, so the indication is that this is non-painful for the insects."

Despite a perceived lack of pain in the insects, it hasn't stopped some people from voicing concern over whether or not it's abuse. Marzullo likens these complaints to people getting upset over a horse's bridle.

"We sometimes get emails calling us psychopaths and encouraging the harm of animals," he says. "If we had invented the bridle to steer the horse, some people would think that's harmful controlling of animals. It also goes to show how little most people know about how neurons function because they never experimented with this in high school. It's a fear of the unknown."

Currently in beta testing, Backyard Brains will put their newest version of the invention on the market next month, allowing anyone to purchase a box of cockroaches and a circuit backpack from their website for $99.


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