We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Nidhi Subbaraman

A View from Nidhi Subbaraman

Human Brainwaves Move a Cockroach Leg

Haven’t you wished for a little more control over the tiny troublemakers?

  • November 21, 2012

A community science group in Chile called Thinker Thing has used an EEG headset to move the leg of a cockroach. Among the mood-reading headbands and brain-controlled helicopters we’ve encountered in this blog, EEG-controlled roach legs are up there among the wilder uses we’ve seen for this emerging brain-to-world technology. 

Reuters visited Thinker Thing and interviewed Bryan Salt, the founder of the group, who described the setup. He used an EEG reader made by Emotiv to capture electrical signals from his brain. A software converted them into waveforms, certain frequencies of which were turned into electrical signals that got the roach leg kicking.

This makes sense when you consider that muscles—yours, mine, and those of the cockroach—are controlled by tiny bursts of current supplied by nerves, guided by electrical directions from our brains.

An amputated lone leg of a roach can be enervated by any electrical ping, if it’s at the right frequency, which is why the leg does a jig on a corkboard, separate from the anesthetized roach to which it belonged.

Thinker Thing is also building software that observes and “learns” which kinds of electrical signals are related to what kinds of motion in the leg, to be able to better control the induced movement. Thinker Thing tried out the moving roach setup at Hack Day in late October.

Backyard Brains, an educational group from California, has one of the more memorable demonstrations of the relationship between waveforms, electrical signals and disembodied roach legs. In a TedEd video (below) they pin electrodes onto a amputated roach leg to first listen in on electrical chitchat between neurons.

Then, reversing the direction of electrical signal sending, they cause the leg to twitch to the beat of song played on an iPhone.

For folks inspired to recreate the roach disco at home, Thinker Thing and Backyard Brains have created a device called SaltShaker which pipes in impulses derived from musical waveforms into the roach legs, while a camera records the twitches that result. 

Cut off? Read unlimited articles today.

Become an Insider
Already an Insider? Log in.
More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Basic.
  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.