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[Summer’16 Internship] Killer Dragonflies

The dragonfly is a killing machine.  They can use their 360° visual span to swoop down and devour their prey mid-flight with a 95% kill rate.  They are superheroes- or maybe super villains – of the insect world. Incredibly biologically equipped, dragonflies have eyes with four or five opsins (in contrast to the human’s three), letting them register UV light as well as ‘normal’ light.  They have wings that act like propellers of a helicopter, allowing them to individually manipulate the trajectory of each wing to switch directions rapidly in mid-flight.  Ant-Man? Spider-Man? They really should have Dragonfly-Man. To illustrate this insect’s abilities, I invite you to google “dragonfly catching fly slow motion video,” or something of that sort.  You will be amazed.  Through examination of this surprisingly dangerous and deadly predator, a motivation for scientific research arises: What biological equipment does this predator have that makes it so deadly?

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Well, to understand the neuroscience behind the behavior, l went to the literature.  In 2012, a paper was published entitled, “Eight pairs of descending visual neurons in the dragonfly give wing motor centers accurate population vector of prey direction.” Long title, I know.  This paper examined the neurons that run straight from the eyes to the flight motor centers of the dragonfly.  This means that the neurons don’t even waste time traveling through the brain, they just go straight to the flight muscles.  The results of the paper show that these neurons, aptly named the target-selective descending neurons (TSDNs), encode a population vector that is strongly correlated with the position of the target (the fly).

 

 

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Above is an example of a population vector.  A population vector contains data based on the firing rate of the neurons and can be used to deduce the most-likely direction of movement.  Neurons that make up a population vector are direction-oriented, meaning they have a preferred direction and show more activity when their direction is favored.  As seen above, the neuron firing rate and the direction of movement is calculated, and a most-likely direction of movement is solved for.  A scientist can use these population vectors to predict and influence a direction of movement an animal will take.

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The adjacent picture depicts the population vector found in the 2012 dragonfly paper, showing the preferred directions of the neurons and the firing rates at these preferred directions. The goals of my experiment are to monitor the activity of the TSDNs while changing the location of the fly around the dragonfly, and then to use this data to understand the neurons’ population vector.  Based on the patterns of activation that I find, I will deduce the preferred direction of each neuron.  After the data for the population vectors is collected, I will try to stimulate a TSDN (with a known preferred direction) and see if and how this stimulation influences the direction of movement of the dragonfly. So that is what I’ll be doing for the next 10 weeks!  My next challenge…catching some samples! I will keep you updated!

By Patricia Aguiar


Backyard Brains at A2 Tech Trek!

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On June 17th, the A2 Tech Trek took place in downtown Ann Arbor hosted by Ann Arbor SPARK. The purpose of the Tech Trek was for ‘Downtown Ann Arbor technology companies opening their doors to the public’. Over 50 companies participated in this event with close to 500 people pre-registered. Backyard Brains participated in this year’s Tech Trek, and tried to get more involved with the community.

For the Tech Trek, we set up products including The RoboRoach, Human-Human-Interface for the public to enjoy. “Neuroscience for everyone”, indeed.

A son controlling his father’s arm, and his father looked so excited with our Human-Human-Interface.

Can you imagine controlling your friend’s arm? Make it reality with our Human-Human-Interface.

How cool is our RoboRoach? The RoboRoach is for everyone, too!

Our interns also prepared and presented their on-going projects. More than 300 people came to All Hands Active where most of the interns’ projects were set up. The interns spent their time explaining their projects to small groups of people who were interested in their project works. Most of the visitors were high school students interested in either neuroscience or tech and their parents. We hope it has helped people get closer to neuroscience! 

 


Backyard Brains Summer 2016 Interns!

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(Interns at their daily morning lab meeting)

We’re excited to announce that we have 6 new interns in biology and engineering fields here for the summer! The Backyard Brains summer internship is an intensive 10 week program for students to participate in hands-on neuroscience research and experiment design with award-winning neuroscientists. Interns will be using Backyard Brains products as the foundation of each of their experiments. Their goal is to the use open source platforms to carry out experiments that bring neuroscience to the DIY community.

Our interns are working on independent research projects covering a host of different topics, ranging from dragonfly targeting to the neuroscience of free will. Interns will be posting regular updates of their progress here on our blog throughout the summer. Check back often!