NIA’s Dr. Suzana Petanceska uses a model brain to describe memory function to students from the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital.
Students from Blessed Sacrament School, Washington, D.C., take turns holding a preserved human brain.
Students shrieked at the idea of holding a brain in their hands, then excitedly lined up to do just that at NIH’s Brain Awareness Week held recently at the National Museum of Health and Medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“It was so cool to touch a real brain, but it felt really weird,” said Sean Carlson, 13, of Blessed Sacrament School, as he removed the gloves he had donned before gingerly handling the preserved brain.
Yet another group of students listened as an actor with an uncanny resemblance to Albert Einstein explained in a heavy Swiss accent that larger brains do not necessarily correlate to larger IQs.
“Ja, when I died they took my brain and studied it. In fact, my brain was a little smaller than most but it had many folds and neurons,” he said. “I was curious and determined—that’s more important than what the IQ is.”
Now in its 15th year, the annual event founded by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives introduces the wonders of neuroscience to hundreds of local elementary, middle and high school students. As in past years, NIH scientists teamed up with experts in their communications offices to produce highly interactive presentations that combined fun with facts.
Participants included the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Aging, which organized the NIH effort this year. The day’s events, by institute, featured:
NIDA—Students broke into two teams to compete in a Brain Derby, a quiz-show that tested their knowledge about how drug abuse affects the brain. “The idea is to get the kids thinking and trying to apply what they’ve learned in school about drug abuse,” said NIDA’s Dr. Roger Sorensen, watching as a team huddled together to brainstorm an answer.
NIAAA—Students slipped Fatal Vision goggles on to experience firsthand how alcohol can distort coordination and balance at an Alcohol and Brain Nonsense session. But first, Dr. Ivana Grakalic provided an overview of how alcohol is processed by the body. “Sometimes the students ask so many questions I can barely get through the presentation,” she said. She watched as students wearing the goggles awkwardly stumbled and weaved while trying to navigate a short walkway. “The goggles disrupt eye/muscle coordination, allowing the students to experience what a drunk person does. It makes a big impression.”
NIMH—Students learned how the brain controls perception as they viewed a variety of optical illusions in the Wonders of the Brain presentation. “We want the kids to be aware of how powerful the brain is and if you practice bad habits, such as abusing drugs and alcohol, it can impair how your brain works and your perceptions,” said NIMH fellow Candace Corbin.
NINDS—Night of the Living Brain topics ranged from sleep patterns in the animal world (dolphins sleep with half a brain so they can continue to surface for air) to how the brain stem sends signals to the spinal cord to shut muscles down during REM sleep to prevent humans from acting out their dreams. “The point is to get kids engaged in neuroscience,” said Dr. Dan Stimson. “We especially want them to make the connection that sleep is vital to learning.”
NIA—Dr. Suzana Petanceska handed around a brain model while explaining the possible connection between healthy brain aging and the choices students make about diet, exercise and learning. “You can think of the brain as a high-performance, gas guzzling, super snazzy car,” she told the students. Explaining that the brain’s 100 billion plus neurons consume a fifth of the body’s energy, she encouraged them to fuel their “high-end” brains with nutritious food, plenty of sleep and a lifelong habit of learning new things. She described Alzheimer’s disease pathology and possible links to such risk factors as obesity and diabetes.