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Dr. Dennis Twombly of NIAAA shows kids the “Drunken Brain” tent.
A middle-school student chases a beam of light while wearing distorting goggles during Brain Awareness Week.
A middle-school student holds the preserved brain of a 64-year-old.
Candace Corbin, NIMH research assistant, explains optical illusions.
Have you ever wondered how many hours a day your cat sleeps—or an elephant, guppy or bat? NIH’ers committed to bringing the magic of neuroscience to the middle school universe presented these and other brain-processing challenges to students during NIH’s Brain Awareness Week (BAW).
Groups of 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders from five area schools recently gathered at the National Museum of Health and Medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for the 10th annual celebration of the week. Participating this year were the National Institute of Mental Health, which was the lead institute this year, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders
Students spent the day visiting interactive scientific
demonstrations developed by enthusiastic
scientists. At the NIMH exhibit, kids were presented with a variety of optical illusions;
the youngsters were quick to discern the images were something other than what they seemed at first glance. The young audience
quickly identified the tricks behind architectural
renderings with pillars in the wrong place and repeat images that appeared to be moving when actually still.
At the NIDA derby, students got to flex their mental muscles by squaring off in a quiz show format to provide quick responses to computer-
generated questions about the effects of drug abuse on the brain and body.
NIAAA’s Dr. Dennis Twombly, who has been involved in the celebration week since its inception, designed his exhibit to lure students
into an eerily lit tent where the centerpiece
was a 4-foot, lit-up version of the “Drunken Brain.” With the gigantic brain blinking wildly as a backdrop, Twombly explained how and why alcohol interferes with sensory perception, movement, balance and memory. To further emphasize the effects of alcohol on the brain, he aired a short video featuring a drunken rat trying to remember the location of a hidden platform.
Archie Fobbs, neuroanatomical collections manager for the National Museum of Health and Medicine, distributed frosted goggles that simulated alcohol’s ability to distort vision and hinder reaction time. He then challenged the students to attempt to touch a moving beam of light while wearing the glasses. The feat proved impossible, due to the distortion from the glasses. Darnea Sayles, who got to wear the glasses and attempted to catch the beam, said, “I see it but it’s not doing what I told it to do!” Fobbs was met with squeals of horror and delight when he capped off his show by passing
around a 64-year-old brain that has been preserved for 8 years.
Not only did the students enjoy the lighthearted
side of learning about the brain, but also they had the opportunity to question the NIH scientists. Whether or not neuroscience is in the kids’ future, this was an opportunity to have a dialogue with working scientists.
As the students boarded the bus, one was overheard saying, “Wow. Scientists get to play with cool toys. I want to be a scientist.” And in case you’re wondering, Dr. Jennifer Mehren of NINDS told the kids their cat sleeps 12 hours a day, an elephant sleeps 3.3 hours, a guppy
sleeps 7 hours and a bat clocks in at 19.9 hours, upside down.
BAW is an annual international partnership of government agencies, scientific organizations and university and volunteer groups organized by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a nonprofit organization of more than 200 neuroscientists
dedicated to advancing education about the brain.