10 August, 2009

How to Explain the Senses?

Crowdsourcing: to open up the development process of any given project to the public in a meaningful way that allows the public to impact the course of that project's development.
Ann Arbor, Michigan is about to have a mini-Makers' Faire (as opposed to a Gigantic Makers' Faire). This entails a large gathering of creative people showing off the products of their creativity and ingenuity in a public forum. Typically there are demonstrations, learning, and sharing as most everything is open access. Basically, it is a gathering of nerds who like to make stuff teaching other nerds of similar aptitude, and the curious public, about the stuff they made. The purpose is to share, awe, inspire, educate, elucidate, demonstrate, and possibly also confuse.

I've gotten in on this, and a project is rapidly coalescing. In the Sensory Augmentation Devices booth, we're trying to demonstrate the electrical properties of nerves. However, to do this live and in real time, we must also tread carefully to avoid disgusting the public. Listed below are the ideas so far, and they are open to your comments and criticism.

1) Brain-ablated Xenopus (frog*) with thoracic cavity open connected to electrical leads at each limb in a physiological solution of potassium chloride. Each electrical lead will be run by a robotic sensor glove such that movement of the glove will induce neuromuscular contraction in the frog limbs. In effect, this is a frog puppet. We hope that the physiological potassion chloride solution will allow passive diffusion of ions back into nerve cells and allow for repeated contractions.

2) Similarly, brain-ablated Xenopus with thoracic cavity open and heart connected to an LED through a tranformer. The blinking LED will demonstrate to observers that the heart does indeed contract due to pulsed electrical impulses.

3) Petri dishes of rat or mouse neurons with silica implants connected to a computerized output to show random electrical activity of cultured neurons. We have a source of cultured neurons, but we still need a way to get a signal amplified out of them.

4) Brain model, either preserved real or plastic so that we can get the neuroscientists among us to explain the structural functionality of the brain and how it relates to neonatal development in humans, as well as anatomical siting of neural pathologies.

5) Setting up some of the basic sensory tricks, such as the Wet Illusion. In the Wet Illusion you place 2 cold metal bars against someone's bare skin with a warm bar sandwiched between them. Although all bars are quite dry, the brain registers the unusual temperature gradient as wetness. If you have other sensory tricks to use, let us know.

6) Electrode-based EEG interfaces hooked up to a sound synthesizer to allow the audience to "hear" the wearer's "thoughts". Getting the EEG output to interface with the sound synthesizer is the easy part, but getting a hold of the EEG/electrodes will be difficult.

7) 8-bit imager, where the audience may flip any of 64 switches to light up one of 64 LEDs in a board to explain how rhodopsin in the eye's cone cells converts light (the audience's hand) into an electical signal (the LED) by way of altering its molecular conformation (the state of the switch).

Any and all of this is completely open for your comment, criticism, and input. In fact, all 3 of those things are explicitly welcome! New demos may also be suggested, but the general theme of this is simply that we show how nerves and sense work.

*We figured that frogs are uncharismatic enough that no one, save the hard-core animal rights' activists, will have a major problem with using them for education purposes.


Ambivalent Academic said...

I think that a LOT of people will be grossed out by brain ablation. I would steer clear of frogs - how were you planning to obtain some Xenopus in the first place?

Toaster Sunshine said...

Xenopus live in ponds, right?