U Neuroscience Students Introduce Kids to Brains

A group of grad students from the U’s neuroscience program took their show on the road last week to help Utah elementary school students celebrate Brain Awareness Week 2002.

“The brain is the most complex and least understood organ in the human body,” said Arie Sitthichai, spokeswoman for the group. “Neuroscientists around the world are constantly striving to increase our understanding of this mysterious organ and to discover cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, depression, schizophrenia and epilepsy.”

The grad students absconded from the U’s anatomy department with three human brains, two sheep brains and one 18-inch segment of spinal cord, which they took to several local schools.

They also brought fruit fly and epileptic mouse demonstrations and several model brains, which students could take apart to examine its various parts.

The grad students presented the one-hour traveling brain show three times Friday to separate fourth-grade classes at Uintah Elementary School, exposing some 85 children to the subject. The activity gave the grad students a teaching opportunity. They hope some of the kids will eventually come to the U to study neuroscience.

One of the human brains was cut into nine thick slices. A fourth-grade student in Gayle Hugh’s class noted that it “looked like a loaf of bread.” As the kids handled the slices, another girl said “it looked more like a meat loaf.”

One of the adults in the room said she had always envisioned headcheese looking like that, and couldn’t understand why her grandmother made it or ate it.

Several of the kids poked at the brains, which were sitting on cookie sheets, and commented that they shook like Jello molds that their moms had made.

All kids, grad students, teachers and others who handled the brains and spinal cord wore surgical gloves to protect themselves from the fixatives that the brains and spinal cord had been preserved in. The main concern was that none of the formaldehyde get into anyone’s mouth.

Grad student Brian Klein said that the brains are kept in a saline solution once they’re preserved. “The preservation solutions and process harden the tissues, which would otherwise deteriorate quickly since brain and nerve tissues are quite soft,” Klein said.

Klein, Sitthichai and Sean Speese worked with 13 kids at one long table, while Mick Jurynec, Christine Fogarty and Sandhiya Kalyanasundaram answered questions for another 12 to 13 kids at the other table in teacher Carolyn Ross’ classroom.

Ross was responsible for bringing the presentation to her school. She’s been working with the students since last fall to get them ready for brain week. They have studied brain anatomy, built brain models with salt clay and done memory training.

Klein showed the kids an epileptic mouse that researchers specially bred to study epilepsy. Klein induced a seizure by suddenly shaking his key chain above the mouse. It got so excited that it flipped high above and out of its container. Klein caught it as it began having a seizure and laid it back in the container. The seizure continued for about 30 seconds, then the mouse woke up and rolled to its feet, unharmed.

Speese showed the kids a fruit fly experiment and discussed how they are used to study human diseases and genetics because their DNA and some of their genes are very similar to that of humans.

One genetically modified group of fruit flies was bred to be temperature-sensitive paralytics. As the temperature in their habitat rose, the flies become temporarily paralyzed and fell to the bottom of the tube. These flies are useful for studying health problems like strokes and epilepsy.

Klein encouraged the kids to take good care of their brains by wearing helmets, eating right, not using drugs or tobacco, and not drinking alcohol or caffeine. He added that they should exercise their brains through learning.

David Thorpe, 10, said, “It was cool, and I learned a lot. The brains felt squishy. I had this experience once last year, too.”

Alice Riedesel, 10, said that the presentation was “very cool, and most young kids wouldn’t be able to get this experience, so we’re lucky to get it.” She also got to see the presentation last year, but didn’t get to feel the spinal cord like she did this year.

“I got to do it in second grade because a friend’s mom, who’s a doctor, brought in a brain,” said Paul Steruri, 10. “It’s just the coolest thing.”

Wearing a rubber brain on top of her head, Amanda Wolcott, 9, said that she didn’t touch the brains or spinal cord. “I thought it was too icky to touch,” she said. “But the presentation was really cool, we learned a lot, and we got to keep these neat small rubber brains.”

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