What does it feel like to touch billions of neurons?
Some students got a chance to find out as they examined a human brain up close and personal during science classes Friday at Sunridge Middle School.
Beforehand, students learned some factoids about the powerful computer located inside their skulls. Visiting Blue Mountain Community College science instructor Kristen Oja described the three-pound human brain as “the most complex object in the known universe, faster than any super-computer.”
Yet, the brain is a fragile organ with the consistency of tofu protected only by the lake of fluid in which it floats. Oja passed around a skull, a model of a brain and a Tupperware container filled with tofu, so students could fully realize the delicate and squishy nature of the organ floating inside their heads. The fluid, Oja said, keeps the brain from being crushed under its own weight.
The students had learned some brain vocabulary before Oja’s visit, so when she asked the names of the folds and cracks of the brain (gyri and sulci), they answered with the rapidity and force of a Serena Williams backhand. Oja looked impressed.
She told them that the wrinkles serve to make the brain compact.
“It we didn’t have all those bulges and cracks, our brains wouldn’t fit inside our heads. They enable us to process a lot more information. If you took a brain and put it in a blender, it would fill a two-liter pop bottle,” Oja said. “That’s how much material is there.”
When Oja asked who wanted to touch a real brain, most hands shot up. The sixth-graders donned surgical gloves and got into a queue.
At the front of the line, Hunter Holford cautiously extended his pointer finger toward the gray matter inside the glass container. He slid his finger along the surface and commented on the texture. This brain, stiffened by chemicals, felt rubbery.
One by one, they reached in, touched and reacted, some with fascination, others with revulsion.
“Eeee-yew,” said one girl, who quickly pulled her hand back.
Back in their seats, the students queried about everything from the central nervous system to dreams and déjà vu and how the skull accommodates a growing brain.
Oja explained about the fibrous membrane known as “the soft spot” in babies, which allows the brain to enlarge. The brain reaches almost full size by about age two, she said, which is why their heads appear somewhat out of proportion.
Oja veered into current events when she brought up the spate of NFL football players experiencing a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
“What are some other sports that might involve repeated blows to the head?” she asked.
Answers flowed back. Football. Soccer. Boxing. Rugby.
She encouraged wearing helmets for biking and skiing and urged all-around caution in the care and maintenance of their brains.
“We really need to protect our heads,” Oja said. “We only have one brain.”
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 941-966-0810.