RoboRoach Lets You Control an Insect's Mind With an App

Remember in high school, in your bio lab, when you had to dissect that fetal pig? You learned all about physiological systems and their processes. And remember in chemistry, when your professor made a liquid nitrogen bomb to send a trashcan rocketing into the sky? You learned what happens when liquid nitrogen is boiled in a sealed container and turns into a gas.

Now, recall your neuroscience class, when you used Bluetooth-operated cyborg cockroaches to learn about brain spikes and adaptation. No? Well, probably because that hasn't happened — yet.

Brought to you by the minds behind Backyard Brains, a neurological education and outreach company, the first commercially available cyborgs are, in fact, here for the general public. They landed on Kickstarter Monday, and they're wooing support from Internet backers worldwide.

The RoboRoach (above), as it's called, has been in the works for a couple years, says Backyard Brains co-founder Greg Gage, but now it's going commercial. After working through several iterations, Gage and his lab mate from the University of Michigan, Tim Marzullo (also a co-founder of Backyard Brains), on Wednesday are giving a talk at the TEDGlobal conference in Scotland to discuss where and how their invention fits into society — and ultimately, the need for neuro-education in the pre-college years.

The initial problem, says Gage, was that the duo was teaching with gimmicks: simulating axon functions with jump ropes, using ping pong and Nerf balls to represent neurotransmitters.

"We kept thinking that we were doing a good job, but the kids weren't really learning," Gage tells Mashable, "because it was more fun to throw a Nerf ball at your friend than it was to learn about a science."

The trick was finding out how to make the "amazing stuff" Gage and Marzullo were doing in their research lab (e.g. recording spikes from the brain in real time) portable enough to bring into classrooms.

Because of the Animal Welfare Act, though, they couldn't bring rats into classrooms, and to boot, their lab equipment cost more than $40,000. Insects became the perfect match, explains Gage, as invertebrates are not protected under the federal law.

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