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Inspiring People to Study the Human Brain

Aired January 13, 2013 - 14:00   ET



GREG GAGE, NEUROSCIENTIST, FOUNDER, BACKYARD BRAINS: When it comes to the brain we're kind of in the dark ages. You all guys all brought your TTL pulse generators? The more kids we can get exposed to the neuroscience, they're going to go a little bit further, a little bit further.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: It's estimated that 1 billion people around the world are affected by neurological disorders. Diseases like epilepsy, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, so this week on THE NEXT LIST, we profile Greg Gage. He is an innovator who is inspiring future generations to study the brain and maybe one day cure those diseases.

Gage is the co-founder of Backyard Brains. It's a Michigan-based company that teaches high school students neuroscience using DIY kits and some, well, interesting props.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought he was just a little bit buggy. He knew that the marketplace needed these tools to help teach neuroscience.

GAGE: Hopefully by building these tools, we'll be able to introduce neuroscience in earlier stage and bring neuroscience into the classroom.

GUPTA (voice-over): Greg insists you don't have to have a PhD or expensive equipment to learn about the brain.

GAGE: The idea to do that for less than $10 was actually kind of provocative.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We take something that people think are absolutely disgusting and we made it into something that can benefit technology, benefit the world.

GUPTA: Greg elicits that same excitement and curiosity in everyone, including CNN's Brooke Baldwin who got her own close-up look at how this all works.


GUPTA: All with the goal of sparking what Greg calls a neurorevolution. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Welcome to THE NEXT LIST.


GAGE: One of the things we say all the time is that we're changing the world. We feel this way very passionately that what we're trying to do is change neuroscience education. I'm Greg Gage. I'm a DIY neuroscientist and I co-founded Backyard Brains.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: What exactly is Backyard Brains?

GAGE: It's a DIY neuroscience company.

BALDWIN: DIY, do it yourself.

GAGE: Do it yourself. Bring the science down to the most basic form so that everyone can understand it. We started as a project called the $100 Spike. We did that because where we went to school in the lab we had to use expensive equipment. Like our equipment that we were using costs $40,000. It was like a high-end stuff.

So we decided you know, can we come up with a way to do this for under $100. We use cockroaches, crickets and worms, things that you can find in your backyard, which is why we became Backyard Brains.

So that allows you to sort of do the neuroscience that we are doing in the lab because neurons are very well preserved throughout all of the animal kingdoms. We can see neurons in cockroaches that are really, really similar to the neurons that are in a human.

So what we're going to do today is try to listen in on how neurons communicate with each other. They use electricity. We're going to do that not on our bodies, but we're going to do with insects. So I need you --

BALDWIN: With some roaches?

GAGE: This is like the fear factor episode, really good.

BALDWIN: Got it.

GAGE: This guy that was really moving fast.

BALDWIN: Slowing down.

GAGE: He's starting to slow down.

BALDWIN: We have put the cockroaches to sleep.

GAGE: We put them to sleep because we can do that because he's cold blooded and so he can't regulate his body temperature. So you can take that guy up.


GAGE: And we're going to remove one of his legs so we can record his neurons so we can warm them back up again. What we're going to do is run a cut. You're going to take this and you're going to cut right across this coccyx right there.

Within the hairs is a neuron living there and the neuron's job is to send information on touch and vibration. So it's going to send messages up to the brain. Even though we removed the brain from this guy, it's sitting in here in the ice water.

These neurons don't know that when something moves, it's going to send the message. So these are just this is radio shack speaker wire that we've soldered to some map pins. All right, and you're going to plug it in --

BALDWIN: You're very crafty.

GAGE: We try to keep everything pretty DIY based.

BALDWIN: Yes. So one pin up here?

GAGE: You put one pin in there and then one pin there where we -- so you can put it in right there, perfect. When we turn on this box, we're going to see those electrical messages as they pass by. OK, so go ahead and turn it on.

What you're seeing, this is considered the noise floor right here and the things that popping out of it are the actual spikes, happening from one neuron sending its information up to another. You can touch the leg and you can see the amount of spikes increase.

BALDWIN: So why?

GAGE: So what happens inside each of the neurons where the dendrites are. You have different types of ion channels that open. When you're touching the leg and touching the hair, it's pushing the hair to the side. When it pushes the hair to the side, it pushes open the ion channels. It allows the ions that have a charge pass through. It builds up to the point where it causes a spike. That's the exact same thing that's happening inside your brain.

BALDWIN: Look at that. You're a PhD in neuroscience, you could be talking to grad students, why come into high schools and junior highs?

GAGE: Probably the best neuroscientists grad students out there are not in neuroscience grad school because they didn't get the exposure early enough to even know that was a possibility. The idea would be to get the message out into as many kids as we can from fifth grade on up to high school, and keeping the experiments more and more advanced. So they actually really understand what it means to become a neuroscientist.


GUPTA: Coming up, Greg turns to the University of Michigan to help bring Backyard Brains to life.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought he was a little bit left of center. (END VIDEO CLIP)



GAGE: We're in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the University of Michigan and I'm here in front of All Hands Active. It's a community hacker space, where people gather together to share tools, share ideas. This is the birth place of Backyard Brains. This is where everything that we've manufacture, everything that we invent comes out of this place right here.

Most of gear was originally designed in our garages and in our living rooms. But we got a small grant from the university to move into an incubator space and so we were there with other companies that we're starting. Then we graduated from there and looking for a home and we started, we came down here to the hacker space.

PAUL KIRSH, UNIVERSITY OF MICHICAN: At the time, he came forward with an idea to spark cockroaches' nervous systems and I thought he was just a little bit left of center.

I'm Paul Kirsh from the University of Michigan. I met Greg Gage and his team from Backyard Brains, several years ago when he applied for one of his first grants. We insisted that he put together an assessment, a feasibility study of his business.

Personally, I expected Greg and his team to come back with there's no way this could be successful, but they actually came back and said that this could be a viable business and that was about six or seven years ago. They're a sustaining business.

Their revenue projection where they are right now is exactly where they said they would be years ago. So I have to give them a hand, not just for perseverance but for staying on target, staying the plan and sticking to their guns.

GAGE: Welcome to the all hands active maker space. It's the home of Backyard Brains and let me give you a tour of what we're doing here. This is the very first part of the process. The first thing you need to do is you need to build the circuit board. Everything is sort of based upon here.

You put the resistors, the capacitors on, the connectors, which actually go through and amplify the signal. We have three stages of amplification, which goes out to a speaker that allows you to hear the signal then we have output ports that plug into students iPads or their computers or external speakers or sound systems so they can actually see and visualize the signals as well.

We need to build some enclosures to put our circuit boards in that sort of protect and allow it to go into the classroom. We are going to take the raw material, acrylic that we use in sheets. That we're going to use a laser and cut them into parts ha look like this. On the front of the boards we have our logo. On the back of the boards we say we're design and manufactured in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When we started the company it was a down time for Michigan, all the automotive industry was in bankruptcy. So we tried very hard to keep all of the development and the engineering and the building all done here in Michigan.

So we found suppliers that were doing PCB boards for the automotive industry that were down on work, building all the boxes for us. We have all the people in the community started helping us do it. We try to keep everything within the state of Michigan or the Midwest.

So once the circuit boards are built and we have the enclosure, we do a final assembly. We put the acrylic on the top and sandwich these together and it's good to go.

BALDWIN: So you're so passionate about being here and giving back to Michigan and Detroit specifically. Why?

GAGE: Detroit is a great city. And the education system has been under a bit of attack lately. I see Detroit in the next 10 to 15 years really rebounding and I think it's going to start from the education. We take on lots of young students, sort of like mentor them to become scientists.

That's the biggest difference we see between ourselves and the students is not that they're no less smart, but they give up a lot easier. If things don't work right, they'll tend to stop. One of the things that we learn as scientists, you keep trying.


GUPTA: Up next, Greg's passion for the brain and bugs rubs off on the whole family.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of the gifts he had given Ben was one of the boxes of the cockroaches. The next time we went out to the garage the lid to the cockroaches was open with no cockroaches in there.





GAGE: When you're in grad school, you get to take electives. So one of the electives I took was to learn how to play the bell tower. I was able to sight-read some simple music. You would practice on a small carolan that had tiny bells, but it had the same shape and everything.

I think our whole family is a little bit driven and it was not really a competition thing. My sisters and I have a really, really good relationship.

CATHY ROBBINS, SISTER: I always think of Greg as the absent-minded professor. Bombs could be going off around him. He wouldn't notice.

GAGE: When I was a kid, I used to take things apart. I was always kind of fascinated with how things work.

LORRIE GAGE, MOTHER: He would hook everything together electrically.

KEN GAGE: On the computer, to the VCR.

LORRIE GAGE: Computer screen, hooked up to the TV.

KEN GAGE: Apple 2E just came out. Copied the program, coded it in there and got this thing to work. Well, that wasn't good enough for Greg. He printed out the program, picked up the individual code and he wrote a program that I could then print envelopes.

GREG GAGE: I would make little programs that would print out envelopes for my dad or one that would randomize chores, dishes. Both my mom and dad would pay me and I remember thinking at the time, I was ripping them off. Because it was, it was kind of easy to do. But they kept trying to encourage me.

I've never really liked to do the things that people are supposed to do. Like when I started to move up in my career as an engineer, I decided to quit my job and move to Europe. And I quit that to become a scientist.

And then I went through my PhD and I got to the end of my PhD. And I was supposed to go on to grad school and I quit that and started a company. I like the uncertainty of the future.

KEN GAGE: The real question is why a cockroach?

DARRELL KIPKY, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN: He doesn't always swim with the pack and he doesn't really want to swim with the pack. I'm Darrell Kipky. I'm a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan.

Greg Gage was a graduate student of mine. Greg's first order of business was to, you know, find a research job. So he found his way to my lab and I was just received a big research grant from DARPA.

At that point, I didn't know him at all. He basically wouldn't leave. He wouldn't allow me to tell him no. And he kept saying -- I'm your guy, Darrell. After a while, he just basically wore me down and I made a decision kind of on the spot, this guy has the spark.

GAGE: With that little opening, I was able to convince him that this was a good opportunity and actually it worked out really well. We had a number of crazy ideas that we would try. And they would always sort of end up in some type of a public indication.

The newest idea we had was to come up with the $100 Spike. The idea was can you take all the equipment that we had, that cost Darrell like $40,000, and reduce it down to the most simplest thing that you could actually record a neuron for under $100.

KIPKY: To really unlock the secrets of the brain requires a state-of- the-art technology. There's a certain cost associated with that. They made the first one out of wood and paper clips. It kind of blew me away.

GAGE: So we wrote the business plan for the competition that we entered. We won the small amount of money. We used that money to buy the wing nuts and stuff that we needed to build our first manipulators and our circuits, and we sort of kept growing from there.

TOM INSEL, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF MENTAL HEALTH: We like to pick out ideas that are innovative and so something that hasn't been done before. Backyard Brains in this particular application received $200,000 roughly a year for two years. I'm Tom Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

What makes this different from a lot of other things that people study in science is there's not really a chance to get engaged on this in high school. Greg says we have to figure out a way to get younger people with some really cool ideas interested in being able to probe the nervous system to figure out how it works.

BEN ROBBINS, GREG GAGE'S GODSON: See the light? On each downbeat it will tap. I'm Ben Robbins and my godfather is Greg Gage. What happens is when the iPod sends out the music to the earplugs actually the same frequency that our brain uses to move around our arms like I am right now. He came to my class one time and did this and I thought -- that's really cool.

CATHY ROBBINS: He actually presented to his sixth grade class and then from there he went to the society for neuroscience.

BEN ROBBINS: What is the brain?

GREG GAGE: My godson, yes, I'm proud. We're going to have a couple of papers together.

BILL ROBBINS, BROTHER-IN-LAW: I see in the future what Greg has been able to do with Backyard Brains is pretty amazing and be able to bring it down to a level that's very understandable.

GREG GAGE: We think that in the next few years we're going to see more and more of this adoption in high schools and actually from fifth grade on up. We're starting to see the neuroscience revolution beginning to happen, which is really exciting for us.


GUPTA: When we return, Greg takes his show on the road bringing Spiker boxes and roaches to inner city schools in Detroit.


GUPTA: Welcome back to the THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. What used to take a room full of expensive equipment to study brain can now literally fit in the palm of your hand.

After downloading Greg's Backyard Brains app in my iPhone, sticking some EKG pads onto my arms and attaching some simple wires to the Spiker Box, I can actually see the electrical impulses or spikes of my muscles at rest and right there during contraction.

It's a remarkable way to sort of see the brain at work. Now watch what happens when these kids at Cass High School in Detroit put the Spiker Box to the test.


GAGE: What we're going to learn about today is that the brain is an electrical organ, it uses electricity. The first experiment we're going to do is we're not going to be using our brain. We are going to be using the brain of these guys right here. How many neurons do you think a cockroach has, four neurons?

No, actually they have one million neurons. So they have slightly less number of neurons than we do, but you know, these guys are fast. They're a lot faster than they are in my laboratory.

So what we're going to do is we're going to be able to record from those neurons, because the neuron is going to send an axon and that axon is going to go up to the brain and we're going to be able to place some pins in there and actually record that.

Now pause it. Do it again. All right, this is how it works.

I think teachers don't really have the confidence to actually do hands on neuroscience activities, there's like a hesitation to do that because it is a difficult field.

So we're trying to make the tools like simple enough that you can do it. So we use things people are already familiar with, cell phones or laptops and then our equipment has one button. You just turn it on.

DONALD JOHNSON, TEACHER: Everything Dr. Gage was telling them, my physiology and anatomy class, they've already learned that, but they never manipulated it. They've never seen it in action. We're going to see how we can get some of these kits so we can use it.

GAGE: This is brand-new stuff. This allows us to do neuroscience with the actual human being. We just made it so you can actually have pads, put into your muscles and record the electricity that's coming from your brain down to your axons on to your muscles and actually record that voltage, it's pretty neat.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I never knew our muscle would respond intensely like this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've been enlightened by the neuroscience, I've been enlightened. You get a better understanding of muscles and brains.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To know that you can experiment with these specific products, it's amazing. We pick something that people think are absolutely disgusting and we made it into something that can benefit technology, benefit the world.

GAGE: These guys were like, I was shocked, I continue to be amazed by how creative kids are. You got to listen to them. A student named Mohamed came up with an idea that instead of just recording the EMG from a muscle. You could have two kids recording their muscles and have arm wrestling and the winner is not who falls over, but who has the biggest spike.

BALDWIN: What's the largest compliment a student could give you?

GAGE: A student said I was thinking about going into nursing, but now I'm thinking about becoming a neuroscientist. That stuff you want to hear. She's now thinking about going into this for a career.

We're almost up to a hundred high schools, but we're in a number of universities. We want to see the amateurs and the high schools kind of grow.

BALDWIN: So once this is in every classroom across the country, what's next?

GAGE: Who knows what's next. Maybe a career in politics would be kind of fun. It would be nice challenge to work on. Right now, I'm kind of focused on getting this project off the ground. The scientific way of thinking is it's a beautiful thing. You have to have data in order to make your claims of it. I think a lot of it is missing in politics.

BALDWIN: So before you become a congressman, today, sitting here right now do you feel like you've changed the world just a little?

GAGE: Maybe just today with these classrooms. Like the feedback we got from the kids is saying we've increased their awareness of neuroscience, but I'm greedy. We want that across all the country. We don't want just one kid, we want every kid.


GUPTA: Greg says neuroscience in high schools is just the launching point. Last year, he and Backyard Brains received a fellowship from a Latin-American program called for "Start-up Chile." They enlisted Greg to bring his low-cost neuroscience gear to high schools and universities and research labs in South America, pretty exciting stuff.

You see Greg is this globe-trekking scientist teacher, entrepreneur, but what earns him a spot on THE NEXT LIST is his ability to interpret neuroscience to everyone with an innovation that could help shape a better world.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Hope to see you back here next week.