Brain Awareness Week has University thinking

by Jessica Steeno

Captain Neuron and his friend Glia, super heroes of the brain and nervous system, spent the past week parading around the stage of the Great Hall in Coffman Memorial Union in tights and colorful plastic cell masks, showing elementary school students how brain cells work.
Their presentations Thursday and Friday were among the many activities of the first Brain Awareness Week, a national campaign to inform the public about neurological functions and disorders. The week’s events were sponsored nationally by the Society for Neuroscience and the Dana Alliance — a group of neuroscientists that includes five Nobel laureates — and locally by the University’s neuroscience graduate program.
More than 3,500 grade-school students from the Twin Cities area visited the campus this week to learn about the brain and nervous system. The students had a chance to study the brain by participating in hands-on activities, such as making a nervous system out of paper cups and string, examining human and animal brains and spinal cords and looking at the brain cells of rats and live chicken embryos through high-powered microscopes.
“My favorite part was going to the brain lab and seeing how the brain works,” said Jennifer Tolzman, a third grader at Tuttle Elementary School in southeast Minneapolis.
Brain Awareness Week gave students the opportunity to come to the University and experience things that they couldn’t in their classrooms.
“It was good that they got to see real labs,” said Frank Suppa, a third-grade teacher at Tuttle Elementary. “They don’t get to see that stuff.”
There were activities designed for older students, too. Junior high and high school students attended mini-lectures on bulimia and how it affects the brain, the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain and how the brain develops and grows.
One purpose of the week’s activities was to draw attention to the University’s unique neuroscience program, said Dr. Robert Miller, one of the organizers of the event. The program, one of the largest in the nation, consists of 80 researchers from 24 departments.
Miller said another important purpose of the event was to relay the significance of science to understanding the brain and ourselves.
“The better we understand ourselves and know what it is to be human, the better we will be able to adapt to our culture and improve our ability to interact socially and to better understand each other,” he said.
University Brain Awareness Week activities were extensive. “We had the most activities of any center or university in the country,” said Peggy Rinard, science writer and a member of the Academic Health Center’s public relations team.
National Brain Awareness Week activities included the establishment of an Internet site to answer questions about the brain and nervous system.
In addition, actor Christopher Reeves, whose spinal cord was severed in an accident last year, testified before Congress this week to promote funding for brain research initiatives.