Listening to a Locust Brain

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Bruce Hood visits locusts at Newcastle University, to try out a demonstration for the 2011 Christmas Lectures.

The Insect Vision Laboratory at Newcastle University is run by Claire Rind and Peter Simmons. In late October, 2011 Christmas Lecturer Professor Bruce Hood paid them a visit to try out a dramatic demonstration: a tiny electrode inserted into the insect's thorax picks up the firing of a key neuron from the visual system. An amplifier then renders the signal audible.

The result? You can literally 'listen in' to the locust's brain activity.


Natural World, Being Human


Professor Bruce Hood


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CHRISTMAS LECTURES 2011 - Meet Your Brain

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OK, so it's five weeks before the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. It's October 31. It's Halloween.

I've got my Halloween-appropriate, spooky t-shirt, and we're going to see some creepy-crawlies, some insects, and hopefully hear their brains working. So come on. Let's go and see.

We're here at the University of Newcastle in the department of biology to see the work of Claire Rind and Peter Simmons who, together, have been working on the visual neuron in the locust, which is extraordinarily large. And what they can do is they can measure the activity - the output - from this neuron, and it feeds directly into the motor system.

We're picking up the output from the visual neuron.

Yes, and it's just - the neuron is very large, and its axon runs on the uppermost surface of the nerve core.

Gotcha. I understand.

And it is the largest neuron in the vicinity.

What this offers is an opportunity to directly hear the activity, through an amplifier, of the nervous system - the neuron firing away in response to any change in the environment. This is listening in to the brain, if you like, of the locusts, which is going to be absolutely fascinating.

Though it might be painful when they kick you, too.

OK, so at the moment, the locusts - we're recording from this side of the field, and it's detecting movement. So listen carefully. Did you hear that? [STATIC NOISE]

That is the firing of the neuron. That's actually listening into the brain. And then it's lost there, so I'm coming into the visual field now. So that's literally the hemisphere of this.

You try and look out over almost the whole hemisphere, but it does look a bit... over here as well.

So it's slightly picking up there. It won't pick it up here as much. It's gone.

What we're probably going to have to do for the actual broadcast is find a way of amplifying that. Or visually, we could probably take the output and put it onto the oscilloscope, and you'll see it pulsing as a sine wave, I would imagine, of some form. Here. Amazing.

And there we go. Wow.

Clearly read about this sort of research, but what I didn't anticipate was, actually, how amazing it is to see it up live. He's a real craftsmen, and it's taken years of expertise and practice to be able to do what he did in, effectively, four and a half minutes. Hearing and listening in on a brain as it's working is fundamentally fascinating.

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