Brain Power!

In March 2016, I collaborated with Cristiana Vagnoni to develop a public engagement stall – Brain Power! – as part of Brain Awareness Week. It ran at the Natural History Museum, and at the Museum of the History of Science.

To do all of this, we recruited the help of a few friends and fellow researchers to act as demonstrators alongside myself and Cristiana during the events. We were very fortunate to have the positive energy of Luiz Guidi, Cristina Villa del Campo, Eelke Spaak, Dante Wasmuht, and Clio Korn. We also had the help and support of Nick Irving from Oxford Neuroscience and the museum teams.

(Photos courtesy of Oxford Natural History Museum and Nick Irving from Oxford Neuroscience)

Our motivation

Although neuroscience regularly appears in the media, usually about the latest possible cure for [insert brain disease of choice], or about the latest in "mind-reading", the consumer of such news typically has little understanding of how the brain works, even at a very rudimentary level, and even less of an idea about how scientists study it. For example:

“'electrophysiology,' ... involves sticking fine electrodes into cells to record their electrical activity” (Scientific American)

What does it mean that neurons have electrical activity? What does “recording” this activity even look like? The description is there but a concrete, tangible explanation is missing.

Our aims

To complement the “vagueness” of popular neuroscience articles, our stall had 3 broad aims:

  1. to make widespread neuroscience methods accessible to the public, focusing on human and animal electrophysiology.

  2. to illustrate fundamental principles of neuroscience – e.g., that the power of the nervous system arises from electrochemical communication between neurons.

  3. to do this in the most hands-on way possible, by engaging the public in the scientific process of asking questions and experimenting, and by making research methods tangible.

The activities

We divided our stall into three (implicit) sections:

  1. an introduction to the brain
  2. the cockroach leg experiment
  3. the human-human interface experiment

An introduction to the brain

Before visitors engaged in our activities, we wanted to provide them with the very rough basics of neuroscience, so that what they observed in the activities was grounded in some context, and so that they could link their various observations and experiences together into an at least vaguely coherent understanding of how the brain may fundamentally “work”. The aim was for them to get a sense of how neurons communicate, and then have an “a-ha!” moment during the experiments when they observed these principles in action.

The introduction to the nervous system caught the public's eye through our display of anatomical brain models. We invited them to explore the brain in their hands and to get curious about it by asking questions: “what is the brain made of? what do neurons look like?”

We also used several laminated pictures, available to pick up and explore, merely as talking points and examples:

How do neurons actually interact? We designed a simplified cartoon poster explaining the parts of a neuron and how it uses these parts to talk to its neighbours through electrochemical communication.

After introducing visitors to these concepts, we hinted that there may be a way to actually test these principles and see them in action, thereby guiding them to the hands-on experiments.

The cockroach leg experiment

The cockroach leg experiment relied on the Neuron Spikerbox kit developed by Backyard Brains, a company we believe is at the cutting edge of science communication.

The Neuron Spikerbox is an elegantly simple and tiny kit which allows anybody to directly record neural activity in insects such as grasshoppers and cockroaches. It consists of a small amplifier, battery, recording and stimulation cables (attached to metal pins), and computer/smartphone interface cables.

In our experiment, the recording pin is inserted into a cockroach leg, in an area through which many neurons pass: keeping this pin there, one can see a steady stream of electrical activity flowing across the display monitor. If you then brush the hairs on the leg – hairs that the cockroach uses to sense its environment – the steady stream of activity becomes punctuated by sharp bursts of electrical impulses: action potentials generated by neurons in response to the brushing.

This technique, using small pins (i.e., electrodes) to record neural activity directly from neurons, is at the heart of all neuroscience. It allows one to see, with their own eyes, the fundamental unit of nervous system activity: the action potential.

In our setup, visitors used a magnifying glass to observe the tiny hairs on the cockroach leg. They were then encouraged to brush the hairs and observe the live neural response on the monitor: direct evidence of how sensory information is coded using electrical signals! We also performed the reverse experiment, using electrical current from the laptop to actively stimulate the leg and activate the neuromuscular system, making the leg “dance”. We thereby illustrated that neurons also use electricity to activate muscles and create movement, a point which neatly links to the next human experiment.

The human-human interface experiment

To further demystify neuroscience and to make it more relevant to visitors, we guided them to the last activity, which demonstrated these principles directly, using their own bodies.

In the human-human interface experiment, also supplied by Backyard Brains, we used a skin electrode to record the electrical activity in the forearm muscle of one volunteer, amplified this activity, and used it to electrically stimulate the nerve in the forearm of another volunteer, thereby (harmlessly) activating the muscle and making their fingers twitch – a strange and funny, but not painful, sensation. Essentially, one person's intentional muscle movement controlled the nerve (and muscle) of another, demonstrating that all nervous systems, including ours, use electrical activity to communicate. Anxious visitors also had the option to observe our demonstrators perform the experiment, instead of actively participating.

This demo was an important complement to the cockroach leg experiment, not only relating the two animal species through basic principles of neurophysiology, but also emphasizing that neuroscience benefits from the study of multiple model organisms at various levels. Equally important for public engagement, this was an especially exciting activity for families, as kids could see how much muscle contraction they needed to “take control” of their parents' limbs, while parents found the twitching sensation curiously entertaining.

The public's feedback

Children, parents, and young adults alike were fascinated by the experiments and were eager to take part and to try things for themselves. Almost all visitors took the time to go through all activities, and many stuck around to ask questions about neuroscience and research at the University of Oxford. The feedback we collected from the public certainly confirmed our positive experiences during the day, and strengthened our belief that scientists should not shy away from making their methods accessible to the public:

“Very engaging. A clear demonstration of how we produce and receive electrical signals. A lot of fun!”

“Really good fun! Great interactive exhibit, which was unexpected”

“I loved the cockroach station and I thought the info really sticked”

“An excellent exposition”

“Really informative”

“Great practical demo, and exciting for kids”

“Just right. Thank you. :) I loved it.”

“Brilliant research and very interesting”

“I really liked it, especially the human nerve one.”

“Thank you. You were fab!”

“It was just right, thank you!”

“Loved it, thank you :)”

“Factual and interesting :)”

“Absolutely excellent, thank you. Even for 5 year old kids.”

“Loved how you all took the time to explain to our little ones – thank you.”

“Learned a lot about neurons and found it fascinating!”

“It was good how it was explained”

“The hands-on experiences were fun!”

“Really enjoyed it”

“Good how you can demonstrate the electrical circuits”

“I want to control my brother's leg :) Thumbs up!”

Of course, we were not perfect and sometimes constrained by our resources. Sometimes we included too much information, and sometimes it was too crowded or too noisy. Some visitors would even have liked something bigger than a cockroach leg!

“A bit complex, perhaps more info on the mechanism (simplified)”

“Can you use something bigger than a cockroach leg?”

“Use a frog leg!”

“Too much info but we were waiting so maybe that's why we got lots.”

“A bit noisy in the small room”

“Use easier words. It was a bit noisy around and was not your fault.”

“Bigger space”