As 45 seventh graders at Park View Middle School filed into the library Friday afternoon, neuroscientists from Providence College were waiting for them with open arms – and bisected human brains.
Despite many of the young students shuddering when they saw and held the brains for the first time, they got to learn all about brain science, including finding out that humans use all of their brain, not just 10%, and there is no such thing as a left-brain or right-brain person.
The event was set up by BrainWeek RI, an organization that focuses on promoting advocacy and awareness for mental illnesses by focusing on how the brain works. The organization was founded by Victoria Heimer-McGinn, who is now the Chair and brains behind the operation, and her father, Hakon Heimer. It is an offshoot of the non-profit Cure Alliance for Mental Illness, a national organization that also focuses on raising awareness of mental disorders through education. The brains they bring in, Victoria said, are donated anonymously for science.
Victoria, who originally went to college for dance but developed a passion for the brain after volunteering in a lab, holds a PhD in Neuroscience from a university in Ireland and is now a Postdoctorate Fellow of neuroscience at Providence College. She said that she came to Providence because Rhode Island is a “neuroscience hub” with the research happening at Brown, PC, and RIC.
Victoria also said that “brains is the family business,” as her grandfather and father both worked in neuroscience and, because of a personal connection to mental disorders, all focused on how the brain relates to disorders like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s. Now, she uses the organization she now heads to visit schools across Rhode Island during the month of March to educate middle and high school students on brain science.
Park View was one of the first on the list. And it came at an ideal time, according to the school’s librarian Stephanie Mills, who said that the students are currently learning about neuroscience through the body systems curriculum in their science classes.
“We don’t get a lot of opportunity to have people in the field come in,” Mills said about this event, which was the first time BrainWeek brought their brains to Park View. “I hope this sparks their interest.”
Victoria said that sparking the students’ interest is one of the main goals of doing this event in the schools. She thinks that neuroscience isn’t taught as much as it should be in schools and she hopes that students will develop a passion for neuroscience through their presentation. She added that neuroscience is a constantly evolving area of study, so she appreciates when students ask questions that her and her team don’t know the answer to because it shows that there’s still so much to learn about the brain.
The most noteworthy aspect of the event – at least for the seventh graders – were the brains themselves. BrainWeek brought in two different brains, both of which were cut in half so the inside could be seen (and because brains, according to Victoria, are identical in structure on each half). One was plasticized, which was better for the weaker stomached individuals, and one was the real thing, which needed to be handled with plastic gloves on. They were brought to the different schools wrapped up in a special material that keeps them safe from wear and tear, Victoria said.
The students first got a short presentation on the brain from Victoria and the three neuroscience graduate students with her, Melinda, Jess, and Alistair. The student’s learned the “basics” of the brain, including how the brain moves in a process from sensory input to integration to motor output.
Then, the students got to pass around the brains to examine them closely while the grad students explained how each area of the squishy and wrinkly object they were holding functions, such as where sound is processed (right next to the ear), where language and motor skills begin, and where the executive center (prefrontal cortex) is located.
Victoria also explained to the students how the hippocampus (the memory center) works, creating new memories, and holding both short and long-term memories. She told the story of Henry Molaison, who lost part of his hippocampus and couldn’t form new explicit memories but could create procedural memories, allowing him to maintain his motor skills.
While the students inquired about PTSD, amnesia, and why some people are more intelligent than others (which Melinda explained was due to the amount of folds the brain has, not how big it is), their interest in the brains they were holding grew.
With the event, the seventh graders added to the education they’re learning in their science classes now, and this Friday the eighth graders will take part in the same event, getting to hold a human brain for what will most likely be the first time.
“The love it, they absolutely love it,” Victoria said about these school events. “We’re trying to get younger people involved in wanting to do science.”