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First Production Manipulator Shipped, Hecho en Chile, Printed with MakerBot

If you’ve followed us over the past couple years, you’ll know we have been slowly working on a MicroManipulator to allow you to do more precise neural recordings instead of just “blindly” inserting electrodes in a cockroach leg, cricket, or earthworm. We’ve had prototypes of manipulators for about as long as we’ve been in existence, but the problem was that they took so dang long to build (about a week) and would break easily.

So, we’ve never worked beyond the working prototype stage of the manipulator as it was just too hard to produce reliably. Until today. Those “in the know” are familiar with a new technology that is taking over the hacker/Maker scene: The MakerBot! It’s a consumer grade 3D printer that allows you to design objects in programs in SketchupUp, Rhino, or AutoDesk 123 and print them on your tabletop device. Few technologies have we witnessed over the past few years that are as exciting as this one. With the MakerBot, we were able to reduce the number of pieces (not counting screws) from 21 to 5, and assembly time from a week to half a day and decreasing. Here’s what it looks like, with a video.

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Compare it to one of our earlier prototypes from ~two years ago.

We shipped this first production unit to our friends Mohsen Omrani and Ethan Hemming at Queen’s University at Kinston, Ontario, who are testing it in their undergraduate neuroscience lab course. We have 1-2 more design tweaks to implement, and then we plan to begin offering it for sale in 2-4 weeks, first in preassembed form and eventually in kit form (both will be priced similarly to the SpikerBox). Stay tuned! And yes, as with our all inventions, this is open-source. We will post all our .stl files and schematics so you can print it on your own 3D printer if you like.

We want to thank our new colleague Tiburcio De La Carcova for helping tremendously with the design and production over the last intense two weeks as we raced to complete the unit in time for Mohsen. Tiburcio is a lifelong hardware freak and co-founder of videogame company Atakama Labs in Santiago, Chile.

Though we haven’t formally announced it yet, we are currently spending some time back-and-forth between Michigan and Chile on a “StartUp Chile” fellowship to bring neuroscience to the schools and students of South America. Notably, this manipulator was “Hecho en Chile” in a brand new hackerspace Tiburcio is building to encourage invention in Santiago. ¡Viva la NeuroRevolucion! Tú vas a ver más español en nuestro sitio web en breve……


2-Channel SpikerBox Now Available. Measure Neuron Speed in Earthworms.

We hereby announce our 2-Channel SpikerBox. What can you do with it? Why, you can measure the speed of spikes as they travel down a nerve, in a truly “backyard” preparation using Earthworms. See our full experiment write up on how to do it! How fast is a spike? Faster than a car, faster than a plane, faster than a speeding bullet? Find out!


Backyard Brains Returns to the Nature Neuroscience Podcast, unveils Optogenetics Prototype

Coming to the Society for Neuroscience meeting is always great fun for us, and it was especially true this year as we unveiled the third generation of our optogenetic prototype and actually did some experiments at our poster! Earlier this year we sponsored a student design effort to build a portable optogenetic rig using cholinergic ChR2 (Channelrhodopsin) transgenic fruitfles from our collaborator Stefan Pulver. We’ve been hard at work over the summer improving the prototype with two design cycles, and here is version 3.

We brought the prototype to SfN; Stefan brought the special flies. Here at Backyard Brains we believe in real-time posters, so if you came by, you would seen us explaining how the prototype worked while Stefan was busy preparing the fruitfly larva for recording. Below Nature reporter Ewen Callaway talks to Stefan as he tries to use our micro-rig.

Ewen subsequently wrote a nice blog post on our gear for the Nature News site, but the best treat of all for us was returning to “Neuropod,” the Nature Neuroscience podcast. We were on the podcast three years ago when we first tried to present our gear and nothing worked. But we kept hacking away, and now, with all our gear fully operational, we were happy to bring the first spikes recorded live on Neuropod!

[audio:http://news.backyardbrains.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/NeuroPod2011_BYB.mp3|titles=Nature Neuroscience Podcast Dec 2011]

As astute listener may wonder why you only hear the standard cockroach leg spikes on the podcast. Where are the fruitfly muscle recordings? Weren’t we also talking about some optogenetic device? Show the data! We admit, it was still relatively early in the day when we spoke with Ewen, and Stefan was still trying to get his dissection right (he remarked the monocular microscope made the dissection difficult, and he would have preferred the gooseneck dissection lights to be longer. Noted for Gen4). But Stefan stayed focused, and at 2 PM Sunday afternoon we successfully recorded the critical piece of data: the electromyogram from the fruitfly muscle during presentation of blue light. It’s noisy, but in the recording below you can hear the increased activity from the muscle at ~2 seconds when Stefan turned on the blue light. The blue light caused the cholinergic motor neurons to depolarize, resulting in muscle contraction.

[audio:http://news.backyardbrains.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/OptoGenetics_Recording.mp3|titles=SFN Optogenetics Recording]

Expect us to release the designs for the micromanipulator (you could 3D print it yourself!) and LED control circuit in a month or so.

It was a busy SfN for us, as we also ran a symposium on “Low Cost Neuroscience” with our colleagues Bruce Johnson from Cornell, Jeff Wilson from Albion, a high school teacher from the D.C. area, Raddy Ramos from New York Institute of Technology, our friend Stefan, and our keynote speaker Ben Robbins, a 6th grader from Novi Meadows Middle School. Mr. Robbins taught the audience how to successfully do outreach to 5th graders. We don’t have access to age data of presenters at SfN, but we would venture to guess Mr. Robbins may have been the youngest presenter ever for the society.

Scientists, with their huge intellect and famous experiments, can sometimes be intimidating to approach. Thus, we were a bit cautious and sheepish when we asked Mr. Robbins if he would let us take a picture with him. Thankfully, he was cool with it.


Photo by Jeff Wilson

You can watch Mr. Robbins’ talk below in all its lo-fi hand held camera glory. Don’t worry, the shaking slows down about 20 seconds in.

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Our good friend Moheb Costandi also wrote a detailed summary of the symposium for the Dana Foundation. Stay tuned in the months to come as we release more inventions!