Holding a human brain is a profound experience.
This 3-pound organ, with its intricate folds of gyri and sulci, housed and controlled a donor’s entire lifetime of thoughts, dreams, memories, emotions and sensory perceptions. It directed an entire lifetime of sustaining functions – breathing, blinking and blood flow. And it fits in two hands cupped together.
“I’ve had students write me and say, ‘Holding a human brain changed my life. Now I understand why I need to take care of it,’” said Leslie Stone-Roy, a Colorado State University neuroscientist.
Each spring, Stone-Roy leads Brain Awareness Week activities to teach hundreds of local middle-school and high-school students about the brain, its anatomy, its functions and its ailments, ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to multiple sclerosis. On one level, Stone-Roy hopes to spark interest in neuroscience as a stepping stone to careers in research, health and medicine; on another, she hopes to encourage kids to wear their bike helmets.
Grey matter, up close
It’s an easy sell when students have a chance to examine human brain specimens from donors who, prior to death, directed that their bodies be used for scientific education. Such specimens are a hallmark of CSU anatomy education, and provide a rare opportunity for learning when university students and faculty members visit local schools to present organ samples from humans, pigs, dogs, cats, birds, sharks and even fruit flies.
Seventh-grader Ian Alder was first in line to hold and examine the brain specimens at Preston Middle School in Fort Collins this week. Ian admitted that during the CSU visit last year, when he was 12, the brains gave him “the heebie-jeebies.” This year, Ian explained, he had watched a few more PG-13 movies and was ready to pull on medical gloves for a close look at the organs, starting with a human brain.
“Whoa,” Ian said, as he held the specimen at the brain anatomy station, his uncertainty swinging to fascination.
“Humans have a larger cerebral cortex than other animals, and that’s what allows us to be special in our cognitive awareness,” Bryan Anderson, a CSU graduate student in biomedical sciences, explained to Ian, as classmates crowded around.
As he then investigated a dog brain, Ian learned from Andy Fisher, another graduate student in biomedical sciences, that two prominent structures in the frontal lobe, called olfactory bulbs, allow the animal its keen sense of smell. Compare the canine organ to the more rudimentary shark brain, next in line at the station, and the dog looks like a genius, Fisher noted.
Form and function
“Look at the size of the cerebrum, where thought processes occur. That’s why they know not to get on the couch, and you can train your dog to sit or roll over,” Fisher said. He directed Ian’s gaze from the dog to the shark brain. “But you can’t train a shark, can you? All it cares about is food.”
“Sweet,” Ian said.
Then the seventh-grader came to the little bird brain, encased in its skull with beak still attached. “I guess that’s why they call it a bird brain,” he said, eyeing its size.
After moving through the anatomy station, comparing and contrasting the human brain with those from animals, Ian said he realized, “Wow, I’m gonna be smart when I grow up.”
Meantime, Allison Ressler, another seventh-grader at Preston Middle School, said she’ll be thinking about her cerebellum the next time she scores a goal in her position as soccer midfielder. At the base of the large cerebrum, the cerebellum coordinates voluntary movement and balance.
“It’s really cool how it all works together,” she said.
Thinking about taste
At the olfaction station, the middle-schoolers learned about pathways in the brain that enable a sense of smell – and its close association with taste. Here, a seventh-grader named Dean Jones, with coaching from the CSU experts, led his classmates in the “jelly bean experiment.”
Plug your nose, he instructed, then begin chewing a candy; before swallowing, release your nostrils and observe. Students dutifully chewed grape, coconut and cinnamon candies while holding their noses.
“OK, let ’em go,” Dean commanded.
The candy flavors suddenly intensified, and the students responded in unison.
“Heyyy,” remarked one girl.
“It’s like, ‘Bam, explosion!’” another enthused.
“That was really dramatic,” said a boy who conducted the experiment with a Hot Tamales cinnamon candy.
At other stations, the students considered more serious topics. At one, the teenagers learned that new research reveals bullying may cause long-term changes in the brain, resulting in mental-health problems and substance abuse. At other stops, they learned about epilepsy and the effects of traumatic brain injuries.
“I really want to make neuroscience more accessible,” said Theresa Anderson, a master’s student in the Department of Biomedical Sciences who is in her third year as a CSU Brain Awareness Week volunteer. “It’s cool to take a concept, tell kids about it, and watch them go, ‘Oh, whoa!’”
Students interested in study of the nervous system may major in neuroscience, an undergraduate program in the CSU Molecular and Cellular Integrative Neuroscience Program. Students in the major study how the brain develops, how it is structured, and how it controls our senses, perceptions, thoughts, and behaviors in both normal and disease states. The major may lead to a variety of careers in research, health and medicine.