This blog post originally appeared on the braiNY website. braiNY seeks to raise the public profile of brain science through the efforts of neuroscientists coordinated by the Greater New York City chapter of the Society for Neuroscience
Worms and jelly beans. It may seem difficult to find a connection between these two long-time favorites of small children and the study of the brain. But as visitors to the braiNY tent at the World Science Festival’s Ultimate Science Street Fair on June 2nd found out, both have the potential to be powerful tools of investigation.
Let’s start with the jelly beans. Fair-goers approaching the braiNY tent were asked to plug their nose, close their eyes, and hold out their hand. After abiding (with varying degrees of hesitation), they were handed a single jelly bean and told to report its flavor. For the now blind and smell-less patrons this was no easy feat. Some declared a flavor with certainty but most stumbled over a guess. While still ruminating on their bean, the taste testers were then told to unplug their noses. Their facial expressions alone relayed the sudden rush of flavor they were experiencing, and it was confirmed with far more accurate flavor guesses. The moral: the experience of flavor is not the domain of the tongue alone; it also relies heavily on odor cues. So, guests left this station with not only free candy but also a newfound appreciation for their noses.
The worm station luckily did not involve any taste-testing. In fact, the type of worms used, Caenorhabditis elegans, are too small to see, let alone taste. Instead, guests peered through microscopes to view how different genetic strains of C. elegans moved in unique ways. The worms, with their simple and well-mapped nervous systems, are a common model organism for the study of topics such as neural development and motor control. Their research significance may have been lost, however, on the toddlers who were just happy to watch them wiggle around under the scope for as long as their parents were willing to hold them up to the eyepiece.
In addition to worms and jelly beans, the braiNY tent also included an opportunity for visitors to witness their own bio-electrical activity in action. With the help of a small device called an EMG SpikerBox, guests could apply electrodes to the surface of their arm, and watch on an iPad as the electrical activity recorded from their muscles changed as they made movements. The stronger the muscle activity, the bigger the electrical response. Experimenting freely with their own movements, subjects quickly discovered which actions most strongly excited the underlying muscles, and which (such as having your friend move your hand for you) did not.
Sometimes, however, the simplest scientific demonstrations are the ones that can have the most impact. Such was the case with braiNY’s brain bank. The bank includes numerous preserved brains, whole and sectioned, from species of birds, fish, rodents, and primates, including humans. The variety of specimens on display allowed guests to compare the brains of these different animals, and to guess which brain belonged to which creature. But for many, the experience of simply seeing, and in some cases touching, a real brain from a real animal was the highlight of the braiNY exhibition. The encounter reinforced just how mysterious and complex an organ the brain is. Leaving the braiNY tent, many visitors thus had an increase not just in their knowledge of the brain, but also in their curiosity about it.
Grace Lindsay is a second year doctoral candidate in the program of Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University. She blogs at neurdiness.wordpress.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @neurograce on Twitter.