Josh Siegle, a doctoral student at MIT’s Wilson Lab, recently told Wired that today’s neuroscientists are expected to be accomplished hardware engineers, fully capable of designing new tools for analyzing the brain and collecting relevant data.
“There are many off-the-shelf commercial instruments that help you do such things, but they’re usually expensive and hard to customize,” Siegle explained. ”Neuroscience tends to have a pretty hacker-oriented culture. A lot of people have a very specific idea of how an experiment needs to be done, so they build their own tools.”
The problem? As Wired’s Klint Finley notes, few neuroscientists actually share the tools they create, which often lack design principles such as modularity. Meaning, project-specific devices and platforms can’t be reused for other experiments. That is precisely why MIT’s Siegle and Jakob Voigts of Moore Lab at Brown University founded Open Ephys, a project for sharing open source neuroscience hardware designs.
“We don’t necessarily want people to use our tools specifically,” Siegle clarified. “We just want to build awareness of how open source eliminates redundancy, reduces costs and increase productivity.”
Open Ephys officially kicked off three years ago as part of a research project tracking hippocampus and cortex activity in mice.
“We spent about half a year looking for the perfect commercial data acquisition tool to use for our experiment recording electrical signals from brains,” said Siegle. “We looked at all of the commercial systems and all of them were inadequate in some way.”
Rather than MacGuyver yet another platform, the duo decided to adopt a more modular approach by moving the creative process online. In addition, the two chose many of the same tools used by hackers and modders, including Arduino boards.
“We like Arduinos because lots of people know how to use them, and they’re easy to get your hands on,” Siegle added.