With the advent of smart devices, classroom curriculum is starting to become increasingly interactive. Now neuroscience PHD student Greg Gage and his team at Backyard Brains are taking it to a new level with their robo kits that can transform any cockroach into a RoboRoach! All that is required is a smart phone, steady hands and a living insect.
RoboRoach kits which will be available starting November and retail for about $100 USD (insect not included) comprise of a reusable backpack, recording electrodes and a battery. To surgically implant the cockroach with the computer pack, the insect is first dipped in ice water. This helps slow its senses and puts it in a state of hibernation, which prevents it from feeling any pain. Next, the shell on its head is sanded down slightly to ensure that the super-glue and electrodes stick, and a ground wire is inserted into its thorax to provide a conducting path. Finally, the antennas are trimmed slightly and silver electrodes are inserted inside.
Once everything is in place, the mini-computer (which sits like a backpack on the insect's torso) is connected to a Smartphone via a Bluetooth and used to send out very small pulses that stimulate the mechanoreceptors in the cockroach’s antennae.
These small pulses fool the insect into thinking there are obstacles in the way. This message is relayed through the neurons to the insect's brain, prompting it to take another route. By sending out continous pulses, the human is able to “tell” the cockroach what route to take.
However, the roaches cannot be fooled forever. They usually adjust to the pulses within minutes and stop responding for about 20 minutes, after which they forget the stimulus and can be controlled again. But that too lasts only for a few days following which the insect's brain gets fully adjusted to the pulses and no longer responds. At that point the roach is 'retired' and sent scurrying back to its old life and the backpack is transferred to a new specimen.
While this may seem like a fun classroom project, Greg says that his reason for creating RoboRoach kits was to get students interested and curious about neuroscience and the functioning of the brain at a young age - An exposure he hopes will result in new discoveries. Students testing his kit at Cooper Union High School in New York City may have already reported a breakthrough with their observation that it takes the cockroaches longer to get used to random electric signals than when subjected to steady pulses. While it may seem trivial, this discovery could impact the design of 'brain pacemakers' that are currently being tested to help people suffering from disorders like Parkinson's.
And for those of you that are wondering if the cockroaches are getting hurt in this process, Greg assures they are not. He says that it is amply evidenced by the fact that the insects seem to be able ignore the pulses within a short period of time, something that would not be possible, if they were in pain.
This is not the first time these ancient insects have been recruited to help humans. Dr. Alper Bozkurt of NC State University has been experimenting with similarly computerized Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches since last year, in the hope that they will some day help find victims trapped in the rubble following natural disasters like earthquakes!
Around since the time of dinosaurs, cockroaches are one of the oldest known insects to mankind and believe it or not, one of most amazing ones too. While they have a bad reputation of being household pests, only 1% of the 4,500 known species of the insect, actually are. They are hardy little things that have managed to survive through generations by adapting to all kinds of environments and diets. The insects will eat anything ranging from starches to cheese to beer and even flakes of dried skin or decaying organic matter. When times are really tough they feed off wood termites or even worse each other or, not eat anything at all for as long as a month!
Not impressed? How about this - They can stay alive for up to a week even after their heads have been cut off and hold their breath for a whopping 40 minutes at a time. Not only that, they are also amazingly speedy and can scuttle up to 3 miles an hour. So the next time you happen to see one a cockroach, do give it a quick salute before . . . . Dashing out of the door!
Resources: bbc.co.uk,newsfeed.com,nationalgeo.com, fastcompany.com,kickstarter.com