Brains make a memorable teaching tool


Bradford High School students laugh as Jacob Kuhr attempts to walk in a straight line at the McKnight Brain Institute on Tuesday in Gainesville. The goggles he is wearing simulate how alcohol affects a persons vision.

Lee Ferinden/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 6:43 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 6:43 p.m.

Until you see a dolphin brain up close, it may be hard to understand the speculation that the beloved marine creature is also the smartest, perhaps second only to humans in intelligence.

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If you go

UF will also be hosting two guest lectures on Thursday to celebrate brain awareness week that are open to the public. They will be held at the DeWeese Auditorium, UF's McKnight Brain Institute.

-- Dr. Yasmin Hurd, professor of psychiatry, neuroscience and pharmacology and systems therapeutics at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, will be speaking at 9:30 a.m. on "The Vulnerable Brain: Understanding the Neurobiology of Addiction Risk."

-- Dr. Paul Gold, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Illinois, will speak on "Making Memories Metabolic -- and Making Metabolic Memories" at noon.

But lined up beside the brains of a manatee, dog, cat, sheep and human, it's easy to see why the dolphin is believed to outsmart most other creatures. Among mammals, a dolphin's brain is one of the biggest, weightiest (weighing about 25 percent more than the human brain) and largest proportional to its overall size, which can influence mammalian intelligence, explained Dr. Ronald Mandel, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

Mandel was speaking to students of the anatomy class from Bradford High School, who came to UF for a day of brain lectures and hands-on anatomy labs Tuesday as part of UF's promotion of brain awareness week, a global campaign to raise brain awareness that is sponsored by the New York-based Dana Foundation.

"'This is hopefully not going to be boring,'" Mandel told the students. "I want to make you crazy excited about the brain."

And students had a hard time not getting excited. In addition to observing the lineup of mammalian brains, they dissected sheep brains and spent the afternoon playing brain games, including optical illusions and exercises designed to make them realize that "a lot of what you're tasting in your mouth is actually smell," said Sarah Guadiana, a neuroscience graduate student and one of the co-organizers of brain awareness week at UF.

Guadiana and other graduate students localized the campaign a few years ago, when her son was in kindergarten. "I really wanted him and his class to get something from brain awareness week," she said.

The next year, all the classes at her son's school in Micanopy wanted her to come out for brain awareness week, and interest in the initiative spread -- all the way to the Alachua County School Board, which began scheduling lectures at various schools in the county during the week.

This year, over the course of this week, 1,000 students at 10 schools in both Alachua and Bradford counties -- from kindergarten to high school seniors -- will get a taste of what goes on in the brain and what it might be like to work with it.

On Monday, students in the dropout prevention program at the Professional Academy Magnet at Loften High School had their day at UF. They were very engaged and asked questions about epilepsy, and what happens to the brain when we get stressed, said science teacher Maureen Shankman.

"Seeing real-life scientists at work ... some of them were thinking that maybe they would do that for a career," Shankman said. "When we got back, they were all excited and asking how many years of school they would need to go through to become one, and if they could go to UF."

This was the first year students from Loften attended brain awareness week, Shankman added.

"We'll definitely do it again next year," she said.

While a big mission of the week is to introduce students to neuroscience and inspire them to go into it or related fields, some of it is more instructive.

Guadiana said that with a group of kindergartners, she took a ball of yarn, which she told them to think of as a brain, and then gave a part of the strand to students spread all over the room. Then she cut the strand at various points to demonstrate what happens when disease occurs. "I got them to understand how communication is organized in the brain," Guadiana said.

She also dropped two melons: one covered with a helmet and one without, to illustrate the importance of wearing a helmet when you ride a bike.

Mandel told the students on Tuesday that the brain is still developing until age 20, so the reasons you can't legally drink until you are 21, or drive until you are 16, "are rooted in biology."

"I think they are in awe and overwhelmed," Linda Ricker, the anatomy teacher at Bradford High School, said during the students' lunch break on Tuesday. "They are just soaking it all up."

And in fact, a lot of students were still talking about the big dolphin brain at lunch. Some said seeing a human spinal cord was the neatest part of their morning.

For Deanna Jordon, 16, who said she has wanted to be a neurosurgeon since she was little, the day affirmed her dreams. Asked if she's still intent on a career in that specialty, she said, "Maybe. But I know it will be something in medicine."

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119, or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com

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