When most people see cockroaches, their first instinct is to flee the premises, or attempt to destroy the seemingly indestructible insects with extreme prejudice. Outside of a few budding sadists, it might seem rather farfetched to imagine children playing with such creatures, but neuroscientist Greg Gage is looking to bring kids and roaches together in the name of education.
"Cockroaches are often misunderstood," says Gage. "They can breath through holes in their skin, they’re one of the fastest animals on Earth, and they can regrow limbs. They like to hang out in dark, dirty places, but I could say the same thing about some of my roommates."
Gage has a special affinity for cockroaches, which partially explains his plans for their future: remote-controlled cyborgs that teach kids about neuroscience. Backyard Brains, the company Gage cofounded alongside partner Tim Marzullo, has been conducting research and development for the last three years on a quest to figure out how to wirelessly control a cockroach’s movement by microstimulation of its antenna nerves. Now, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, it looks like we humans are about to show cockroaches who’s boss, for the sake of education. At a recent TEDx event in Detroit, Gage announced that the company will begin shipping a kit (including live cockroaches, surgical gear, and microelectronic hardware) that will allow kids to control the creatures with a smartphone.
When Gage was a PhD student at the University of Michigan, he and a friend used to go into 5th grade classrooms to teach neuroscience, as an outreach activity. Although they managed to create some fun ways for their young wards to learn about the brain, it wasn't the kind of science they experimented with in their lab. Showing real neurons communicating with neurons (or "spiking") was impossible because of the high cost of equipment, so Gage began experimenting with demonstrations using off-the-shelf electronics. One such project ended up becoming the RoboRoach. It’s kind of complicated.
"The brain is an electrical organ, using the same electricity as our mobile phones," Gage says. "Each neuron communicates with the others by sending a spike of electricity to encode information. In the case of the RoboRoach, the neurons in the antenna send spikes to the brain about the outside world: touch and smells. When you apply a little bit of electrical current inside the antenna, you can cause these neurons to fire spikes. The brain then receives these messages and thinks that the antenna has touched something, so it will turn in the opposite direction. It is almost analogous to the bridle and reins of a horse."
The RoboRoach project is envisioned as being used primarily for educational purposes, but there are other options up for discussion. Some academics have floated the idea of search and rescue roaches—climbing through rubble with very small cameras to help first responders communicate with survivors. There are more possibilities than there are roach legs—especially after a popular recent TED-Ed Talk, which resulted in larger requests from U.S. high schools.
"Before then, we were primarily working with undergraduate classrooms," Gage says. "This exposure allows us to really get kids excited about neuroscience, and teach the ethics of working with animals at an age where they are still thinking about what they want to be. Our goal is to get the clever ones interested in the brain, and to become neuroscientists."
Is this part of a brave new wave of hands-on learning, or an ethical horror, teaching kids that it's okay to treat living creatures—not matter how lowly—as science projects or playthings? Weigh in in the comments below.