Greg Gage doesn’t always have the answers — and he likes it that way. While working as an engineer in Michigan, he decided on a whim to move to Europe, where an astronomy seminar beckoned him to a neuroscience Ph.D. program.
But what looks like fun and games is a serious mission to advance neuroscience research by sparking an interest in it early on. Most high school students don’t consider a neuroscience career — but that could be because they’ve never been exposed to it. So Backyard Brains brings the Ph.D.-level neuroscience lab to the classroom, stripping cutting-edge equipment down to its affordable, kid-friendly equivalent.And rather than climbing the tried-and-true ladder to a faculty position, he co-founded Backyard Brains, a Michigan-based startup that produces affordable kits for kids to conduct real-life neuroscience experiments. The SpikerBox, for example, lets budding scientists stimulate neurons in insects and record the resulting electrical signals on a smartphone. Other kits transform phones into microscopes — and cockroaches into mobile app-controlled cyborgs. Backyard Brains also offers free lesson plans and experiments online, illustrated in its signature comic book style.
“I want to find extremely smart people who typically decide ‘I want to be a doctor’ or ‘I want to go to Wall Street,’” said the 2014 TED Fellow. ”We’re hoping to start a neuro-revolution.”
For now, the revolution looks more like a slow burn. “They’re a small company and can only foment change slowly,” says Albion College professor Jeffrey Wilson. And it might take time for teachers to feel comfortable teaching neuroscience. But he adds that Backyard Brains’ lab protocols more closely reflect “real science,” since they encourage students to design their own experiments instead of following a “recipe” to yield a “correct” result.
Stimulating a nerve cell, or neuron, sends an electrical current down its length, resulting in a voltage spike that releases chemical signals called neurotransmitters, which then stimulate neighboring cells.
Gage fits the part of inventor, from his horn-rimmed specs and bedhead hair to his effusive speech. Like many Michiganders, he grew up in a tight-knit, blue-collar family. He taught himself to code at an early age, programming his computer to print envelopes and randomly assign chores to his family members.
He enjoyed a stellar engineering career in Michigan. But since he dreamed of living in Europe, he quit and worked as an engineer everywhere from Italy to the Netherlands. A supervisor tried to persuade him to become a manager. “He told me, ‘You don’t want to carry around a toolbox around the rest of your life.’ I liked carrying the toolbox.” But what career would reward him for it?
Then he stumbled on a flier for a seminar featuring astronomy Ph.D. students presenting their research. In school, “science was always about reading and memorizing facts.” But the speakers “didn’t know the answers yet. They were discovering them.” As he picked their brains over beer and wine, he came to a realization. “This is my calling. I want to be a scientist.”
He applied to physics research programs and got accepted to Fermilab outside Chicago. But when he visited, he says, “it felt detached.” He craved a more hands-on experience.
As an electrical engineer, he gravitated to the brain, since neurons communicate through electrical impulses. During a visit to a neuroscience lab, he watched a rat hooked to a speaker that amplified the electrical impulses from a neuron in its brain. When the rat moved its right leg, he heard the faint, crackled staccato of a voltage spike. “The moment someone hears their first spike and realizes that these same spikes are happening inside of them … is special,” he said.
Entranced, he enrolled in a neuroscience Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan, where he asked professor Daryl Kipke to join his lab. ”He basically wouldn’t leave,” Kipke said. “He wouldn’t allow me to tell him ‘no.’”
Gage hit it off with fellow grad student Tim Marzullo, who shared his oddball sense of humor. The two taught neuroscience lessons at local inner-city schools. “But it was never quite as cool as what we were doing in our labs,” Gage said.
It could revolutionize mental health research — and prevent others from experiencing depression.
Inspired by the magic of hearing a neuron spike, they challenged themselves to build a machine that students could use to record them in insects. The catch? They could use only materials available at hardware stores and had to stick to a $100 budget. In 2008, they demo’d a prototype of the SpikerBox at the Society for Neuroscience conference. It failed — but it generated so much buzz that it drew tons of $100 donations and email queries.
After SpikerBox exploded into much more than a side project, Gage stepped out of the usual academic path and co-launched Backyard Brains with Marzullo.
Gage built the gear in his living room as the two applied for funding — and got rejected countless times. Even Kipke wasn’t crazy about the idea. Some scoffed at their alternative career path. But Gage knew Backyard Brains could inspire the next generation of neuroscientists and revolutionize mental health research — and perhaps prevent others from experiencing the same type of depression that had afflicted him for years.
Finally, an NIH grant allowed them to release the SpikerBox in 2009. Fast-forward to 2014, and the operation has expanded to a full-fledged lab. Refusing to outsource, Gage taps into his home state’s age-old mechanical know-how—and emblazons each product with the Michigan silhouette.
Although PETA has boycotted the RoboRoach, Gage argues that an ice-cold anesthetic ensures a painless procedure.
Backyard Brains offers six kits for about $100. Their edgiest is the RoboRoach, based on a real-life treatment for Parkinson’s disease. Students snip the ends of a cockroach’s antennae and thread them with a wire, which connects to a battery pack paired with a mobile app. A finger swipe sends an electrical impulse down the antennae to the insect’s nervous system, steering it left or right.
Has Backyard Brains sparked a neuro-revolution? Gage says that improvements in research quality probably won’t materialize for up to a decade. Some students have already developed sophisticated science-fair experiments that measure how feeding a cholesterol drug affects spiking rate, for example. Still, many instructors don’t feel comfortable teaching neuroscience, which isn’t a standard high school subject.
So far, roughly 31,000 people have tried the SpikerBox. As early as the end of this year, NASA astronauts will test the kit at the International Space Station and video-conference the experiment to classrooms on Earth.
For now, Gage leaves himself open to discovery. “The uncertainty is actually exciting,” he says. Because who knows? The neuro-revolution could emerge like some of the best scientific discoveries — by accident.
Why you should care
Because Greg Gage is on a mission to advance basic neuroscience research by teaching kids how to electrically stimulate insect legs and build their own cyborg cockroaches.