The ‘cockroach backpack': Education or torture?

Promoting animal cruelty or inspiring a generation of neuroscientists? A new invention by a US company allowing you to control a cockroach with a smartphone has been making waves in the news after claims of cruelty by animal rights groups.

Taking over an insect’s brain and controlling it with your smartphone, I’m not quite sure if that’s really cool or just very twisted. I get sudden images of kids melting ants with magnifying glasses and that advert where a load of cats control a milkman, but is this the spark that is needed to engage a generation of potential neuroscientists or just another sick game?

The ‘RoboRoach’ is a device you clip onto the back of a cockroach and, by interfering with the signals it receives from its antennae (note that these represent its primary sensory input), you can make the little beastie turn left or right with a swipe of your thumb on your smartphone.

Image courtesy of Backyard Brains

Image courtesy of Backyard Brains

The science

So how does it work? Well the neuroscience side of it is actually really simple (about as simple as neuroscience gets at least). The cockroach’s antennae act as two huge sensory receptors and when they hit something it triggers an impulse of electrical activity down to the brain so the cockroach knows something is there, the natural reaction to such an event is to turn away from that side. You may think antennae are used for just the sense of touch (hence ‘feelers’) but they are actually mainly used for olfaction, or smell. The thing to remember about all sensory function is that it acts to convert whatever impulse it receives into an electrical stimulation that can be sent to the brain, if you can hijack this by just sending the electrical impulse without the natural stimulus you can make completely change the cockroach’s perception of the world around it.

To install this little backpack you have to do around 45mins of surgery on your cockroach which involves anaesthetising it by dunking it in an ice-bath then inserting one wire into its thorax (the ground wire) and, after chopping them down to about a third of their normal size, a wire into each of its antennae. Once you’ve warmed them up and glued an electrical circuit about the same size as the cockroach on their backs you’re ready to go.

The company

The company behind this toy (not sure whether to use inverted commas there) is a venture set up by two grad students from the University of Michigan and is called Backyard Brains. In addition to the RoboRoach mentioned above they also offer ‘The SpikerBox’ (allowing you to hear neuronal activity in invertebrates) and ‘The Completo’ (heralded as a ‘tabletop electrophysiology rig’ but actually just combines the ‘SpikerBox’ with a microscope, a fine adjustment tool and your own smartphone to allow you to measure neuronal activity as a response to a specific stimulus, you’ll have to check out the website to see what I mean). Most of this stuff sells for around $100 which means it isn’t the cheapest educational kits but in the scope of scientific equipment I can assure you that’s peanuts. It’s also largely aimed at educators to buy in and show their class, I’m not too sure how well the RoboRoach would go down in my old school but it’s a great plan!

 The aim

So why have they gone to all the effort to produce these kits? Well it’s all part of a big plan to inspire a new generation of neuroscientists, something I think is really needed. There is a real disparity between the kind of science kids do in schools and what is done in the real scientific world, now you may think that’s because it’s impossible to do in school with a load of teenagers but what these guys have shown is that it’s actually quite easy! With really simple technology you can tune into neuron spikes and start looking desensitisation to a response, this is getting very close to the kinds of research that are published in journals and heralded as new discoveries. I’d love to think of where I’d be if I was conducting these experiments in school instead of trying to replicate the exact wording from the mark scheme in an exam.

Ethics

Now the reason I even heard about this (and probably the reason you will have heard of it too) is that this flags up some obvious ethical issues. Backyard Brains state on their website that by immersion in ice water the animals are completely numbed and there is little evidence to suggest they feel any pain in the first place. They also suggest that, once you are done experimenting, you can remove all the equipment from the cockroach and it will be free to live a normal life once more. Personally I’m not sold on this one seeing as it’s had most of its antennae unceremoniously lopped off but the concept of a ‘normal life’ wouldn’t really ring true anyway seeing as these are kept as caged animals. As bad as it sounds I’m not too sure I see the difference between this and the use of maggots as bait when fishing for sport. In the whole grand scheme of animal testing this is just a drop in the ocean, as to whether the use of these kits will leave our children with a warped sense of animal rights I suppose that is another question. What do you think? Leave a comment and let us know.

Conclusion

I think this is a fantastic concept, and quite possibly one of those cases of ‘any publicity is good publicity’. The company have had a great idea, I just feel they have failed to notice the pitfalls of such a notion and I worry that this might damage their image beyond repair. I hope they carry on their work and keep developing these kits, maybe someday we will get teenagers applying to do neuroscience at university with a real idea of what the discipline entails. We can really class this whole thing as another case where poor communication has damaged the public perception of science, something that really needs to be amended before we get any more media uproar. At least with improved education (the aim of the whole above project) we will be able to give future generations the tools necessary to understand what scientists do and why, and not just find out about experiments when it is picked up by sensationalist tabloid journalists.

Written by Mike Daniels

Mike Daniels

I’m currently studying for a PhD in neuroinflammation at the the University of Manchester, UK. My work is based mainly on the role of a huge protein complex called the inflammasome in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, stroke and haemorrhagic fever.
When I’m not in the lab I’m usually found up a mountain or out in the countryside somewhere and am always on the lookout for any new science outreach ideas!

One thought on “The ‘cockroach backpack': Education or torture?

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