Traditionally, scientific research was the preserve of the wealthy and today the situation is not much different—while researchers need not be rich, almost all of them work in institutional laboratories using equipment that can be very expensive.
Recently, however, a do-it-yourself biology movement has emerged, and a symposium held at the 41st annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, DC, earlier this month described several innovative projects aimed at minimizing the cost of brain research and making it accessible to everyone.
“If astronomy were like neuroscience, you’d need a Ph.D. to look through a telescope,” says Tim Marzullo, who chaired the symposium. “It’s ridiculous—the technology for recording nervous impulses is 90 years old and there’s no reason why it can’t be brought into schools.”
Marzullo and his colleague Greg Gage are doing just that. Three years ago, they founded Backyard Brains, a small company that manufactures neuroscience kits out of cheap off-the-shelf electronics purchased from outlets such as Radio Shack and distributes them to high schools and colleges, with the help of grant funding from the National Institutes of Health.
“I come from a family of teachers,” says Marzullo. “Backyard Brains came out of my love of neuroscience, education and building things. We see ourselves as part of a broader movement of DIY hackers who are trying to build just-good-enough versions of gear to reduce the barrier to entry.”