Launching our new “Spikes in the Classroom” outreach module

spikerboxWe are incredibly excited to announce the addition of a new module to our outreach efforts. When we go into a classroom, we bring plenty of dead brains… rare jarred brains of porpoises and penguins for our “Comparative Anatomy” module and squishy sheep’s brains that students get to touch and hold and inspect (always with a gloved hand!). However, most neuroscientists work with living brains: brains with neurons firing and sucking up oxygen from the blood. But it has always proven difficult to to bring this kind of neuroscience into the high-school classroom. Until now.

We are going to be bringing real spiking neurons into classrooms throughout San Diego with our new “Spikes in the Classroom” module, thanks to a grant from the Brain Corporation, an awesome set of equipment by Backyard Brains, and some hard work from our outreach team. Now, students will have the chance to listen to actual spiking neurons, see them on an iPad, and record from them like real neuroscientists. We’ll be introducing them to the fundamentals of neurophysiology, sensory encoding, and neural prostheses.

The key to all of this is the incredible work of Tim & Greg at Backyard Brains, who have been living up to their motto of “Neuroscience for Everyone!” by introducing their electrophysiology rig known as the “Spikerbox,” which lets anyone record neurons from a cockroach for under $100.

We’ve had a spikerbox for a while. In fact, we were the proud recipients of the first ever production SpikerBox. In 2010, Tim & Greg expedited their production line in order to get us our SpikerBox in time for that year’s San Diego Science Festival. The thing was an alpha-release beauty, with a balsa wood enclosure, custom glitter pen graphics, and a slight buzz that we just couldn’t get rid of. We were living at the bleeding edge and this SpikerBox was a bit too “buggy” for our school visits. Thanks to the Brain Corporation grant, we’ve been able to update our equipment to the latest release of the Backyard Brains Spikerbox, start a colony of roaches for experimental subjects, and we’ll be able to bring an iPad to our classroom visits so students can see and record from real neurons. Graduate student Erik Kaestner says, ‘the best part of the demonstration is when you can show neural control of muscles by using a student’s ipod to inject electricity into the neurons and have the cockroach leg dance along to any song with enough bass’.

We’ve run our new module at one school and at the San Diego Science Festival and in more of our school visits in the coming months. If you would like the UCSD Neurosciences Outreach Program to visit your school, contact Stephanie Alfonso at