Slick and spongy. Wrinkled and beige. Lumpy and mysterious.
It's the stuff of mad-scientist horror movies. But when the sixth graders of Emerson Middle School had their first encounter with a preserved adult human brain at UCLA, any anxiety they might have had immediately gave way to curiosity as they eagerly reached out to touch the organ with a gloved hand.
Where did it come from? Why does it look squished? Where do the eyeballs go?
"It's definitely weird," concluded Jayden Dillard after running a finger over the surface of a brain cradled carefully in the hands of a neuroscience graduate student. "Sort of slimy and gross-looking. And it smells funny, too," he said with suspicion.
The neurons were definitely firing Tuesday, March 9, when 60 Emerson sixth graders, accompanied by a few parents and teachers, spent the day at the Gonda (Goldschmied) Neuroscience and Genetics Research Center, learning from 20 volunteer undergraduate and graduate students everything they ever wanted to know about the human brain.
Graduate student Evan Lutkenhoff points out a feature in a human brain to students from Emerson Middle School.
With the help of brain-affiliated groups on campus, such as the Society for Neuroscience and Interaxon, the UCLA Brain Research Institute is hosting more than 250 local K-12 students throughout Brain Awareness Week, March 8-12. The institute is keeping students engaged with lively presentations, lots of props, lab tours, games, a campus tour, free lunches, and panels of UCLA medical and graduate students talking about the pathways they took to get to college.
"Oh my gosh! They have never seen anything like this," said Garry Joseph, sixth grade science teacher at Emerson, as his students pressed in to get a closer look and feel of a lumpy section of brain tissue. "They were fighting to get on the list to go. We have 180 sixth graders, and we could only bring 60 here. So they've been competing for months to come here. If they didn't waste time in class, they earned time to do this field trip."
Joseph held a whole brain in his hand while taking a photo with his cell phone. "It feels like — a giant bag of Skittles," he declared.
Science teacher Garry Joseph snaps a brain with his cell phone camera.
Evan Lutkenhoff, a graduate student in neuroscience and a veteran teacher, showed the students not only brains but a long length of someone's spinal cord; the leather-like dura, a membrane that covers and protects the brain; and a cerebellum ("The little brown things coming off of it are nerves," he informed students).
Lutkenhoff was careful to tell all the students, "Somebody was nice enough to donate their brains to science so that you guys can look at this. So let's keep that in mind."
Down a hallway, students lined up to toss small plastic brains into a box four feet away. After practicing their aim, they donned vertigo-inducing goggles that distorted their vision 20 degrees to the left. They then tried the same toss with hilarious results.
The same visual distortion was tried on adolescent barn owls, explained Pamela Douglas, a graduate student in neuro-engineering, to see if the birds' brains could adapt. Scientists discovered that after the birds had lived with this distortion for awhile, they were able to remap the visual system in their brains to offset the 20-degree tilt.
"That's pretty amazing," she said to students still recovering from the head-spinning experience.
A student tries to toss a plastic model of a brain wearing goggles that distort her vision to see if her brain can adjust for the 20-degree tilt.
Organized by volunteer students and faculty, Brain Awareness Week is just one of several ways UCLA neuroscientists and their students are trying to introduce this intriguing science — and science in general — to K-12 students all over Los Angeles using stimulating lesson plans and hands-on activities.
"Everyone has a brain, so it's a pretty fascinating subject," said Liz Losin, a neuroscience graduate student who was showing students what a human spine looks like.
"We're just trying to expose them to some basic concepts of brain science," said Angela Rizk-Jackson, who coordinated the week’s events with fellow graduate student Aida Attar. Touring the campus, the younger students are also learning that college students come in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities, Attar said.
The Brain Research Institute has been promoting Brain Awareness Week for almost a decade, said Dr. Joseph Watson, professor-in-residence of psychiatry and biobehavioral science and associate director of outreach for the institute. "It's become increasingly organized over the years. This wouldn't be possible without an army of students who volunteer to do it. It's something they look forward to every year."
The institute promotes neuroscience in the community in other ways. It presents awards to winners at the California State Science Fair and offers summer lab internships. In January, it co-sponsored the Los Angeles Brain Bee, a citywide high school competition testing students' knowledge of neuroscience. Throughout the school year, UCLA students hit the road with preserved human brains, models and learning tools to visit classrooms and science academies where they reach out to hundreds of K-12 students.
To prepare for the task, UCLA undergraduates from all different majors take a course called Project Brainstorm, where they learn how to teach brain basics from neuroscience graduate students.
Graduate student Liz Losin explains the function of the human vertebra.
For one parent, the experience of spending the day in close contact with anatomical specimens was worthwhile.
"This was so well-organized and so professional. We don't get to experience this anywhere else," said Michiko Saborouh, whose son Justin was listening intently to a graduate student explain what happens to an injured brain. "I hope he gets some ideas from this for his future."
To learn more about the Brain Research Institute, go here.