Open Hardware/Software Leads to a Better Behavioral Tasks

Ooh Ooh Ooh! They Finally Did It!

So this has been a GREAT week in research. A new protocol was reported for building an open-hardware/open-software operant chamber for testing rats called the ArduiPod Box. Now I have been planning and scheming on how to do this for ages, but never got around to it. I have NEVER felt so grateful to be scooped in my entire life!

The manuscript discussed in this post is “ArduiPod Box: A low-cost and open-source Skinner box using an iPod Touch and an Arduino microcontroller” by Oskar Pineño from Hofstra University. It was published in Behavioral Research Methods. The author’s website where you can download the software is located Here

Special thanks to Jason Snyder for bringing this article to my attention!

An Innovative Approach

In his study, Oskar Pineño sought to solve an enormous problem plaguing behavioral neuroscience-that of having to spend at least <$7,500 USD/chamber on the equipment necessary to perform operant tasks. This is a problem since often to get grants you have to show that the task you plan to use works, but cannot afford to buy the equipment until you get a grant.

Instead of spending a lot of money on a commercial operant chamber, Pineño pursued an alternate path, he decided to combine already available technologies to make the equipment himself for under $500 USD. What excites me about this approach is that Pineño uses an iPod touch in combination with an open-source electronics platform called Arduino (Link) to accomplish the same research goals as a full operant chamber, but literally at under 1/10th the cost.

By making such research options accessible to small labs (for comparison it takes over $50,000 USD to set up a lab with 8 operant chambers for high throughput testing), this equipment may serve to stimulate a surge in behavioral research. Particularly, ther emay be a resurgence of research relating to learning theory and other quantitative psychology/biology research (for a resumé of such research I recommend a visit to the website of SQAB-the Society for the Quantitative Analysis of Behavior).

Any resurgence in this type of research is bound to lead to new hypotheses and perhaps some sort of quantum leap in the field. There has long been a movement away from operant conditioning in behavioral science, but I for one, feel that this may be reversed with the availability of relatively cheap behavioral apparatus. In fact, I am keen to get my hands on the components myself and see what questions I can answer with them.

Although the ArduiPod Box not as yet been used in mice as of yet, I harbor hope that this type of research will open the door to more sophisticated studies of learning and memory processes in mutant mouse models being used to study human disease. The iPod touch is easily sensitive enough, so it is a matter of patience and careful task development. Perhaps even direct analogues of computer based tasks such as the NIH Toolbox (Link) or Stroop-like tasks of attention (Link1, Link2) may be developed in the future.

An example of the equipment needed to build this chamber (except the plexiglass cage) is below (from Dr. Pineño’s Website):

Necessary Equipment

Clockwise from left: iPod touch, Bareduino 328 Plus board, Redpark Serial cable, servo motor, and Arduino Uno board

And a video of the equipment in action is below, from the same source:

This 5 min video demonstrates a rat performing a simple discrimination task using the ArduiPod Box (i.e., when the bottle retracts and screen goes blue, the rat has to touch it to be able to drink again)

In my mind this equipment is absolutely revolutionary. Earlier experiments by Kenneth Leising’s lab at TCU have used an iPad as the touchscreen in an operant chamber, but that setup required a commercial system to be purchased and retrofitted to accept the iPad Link. The methods reported by Pineño will allow researchers between grants or in teaching/community colleges to perform behavioral research that will further the field.


Overall, the ability to use something like an iPad touch in concert with some open hardware options opens up behavioral research using operant chambers to an entirely new group of researchers: specifically those at small colleges that must rely on small grants due to the nature of their research, as well as for educational purposes (e.g., Psychology classes may actually be able to use such equipment in lab courses to give hands on understanding of the research performed by BF Skinner).

In fact, Oskar Pineño put it best in his paper, the final paragraph reads as follows:

Certainly, the ArduiPod Box is not without problems (as is shown by the results of the experiment here reported), at least in its current version. However, as an open-source device, the ArduiPod Box could be tremendously transformed in a short time, as it is improved or even adapted and modified to fit new uses by a thriving community of developers and makers, some of whom also hold a passion for the science of animal learning and behavior. Moreover, this device could also encourage young researchers to adopt a DIY philosophy, thereby investing time and effort to create their own experimental apparatus. With time, we might once again experience technological innovation in our research field, a field that enjoyed its most fertile moments during the 20th century thanks in large part to the tradition initiated by B. F. Skinner, great scientist and ingenious DIY maker

I could not agree more.

As a bonus, here is a video of a frog playing Ant Crusher on an iPod touch

2 thoughts on “Open Hardware/Software Leads to a Better Behavioral Tasks

  1. Cute! I like arduino’s for making better setups. I agree with you and the Oskar Pineño that a DIY spirit in science is really good: don’t just accept things they way they are just because they are sold like that.

    What I find weird is that the rats for this experiment were bought from Petsmart.
    In most European countries, there is a separation between small companion animals, farm animals and experimental animals. This means that an experimental animal has been specifically bred for this goal and it can only be purchased from a provider of laboratory animals, not from a pet shop. A pet is per definition not an experimental animal.
    Of course there are some exceptions, such as studies of wild animals or farm animals that aren’t regularly bred for research, or for studies that specifically focus on pet behavior.
    I can’t really see those exceptions apply here though. Are the rules really that different in the US?


    1. It is no unheard of in the burgeoning field of dog cognition and dog social behavioral work. A lot of the pilot studies were in fact done in someone’s pet.

      As to this case, I have no clue as to the particulars of the discussions, but the paper did clearly state that there was IACUC approval, which means they knew about, and approved of the research.

      My guess is that this was a pilot study done on a cute little house pet. Anything more than that type of hobby science clearly would have to go through the University and use traditional husbandry and animal care taking requirements.


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