Sleep is regulated by two body systems: sleep/wake homeostasis and the circadian biological clock. When we have been awake for a long period of time, sleep/wake homeostasis tells us that a need for sleep is accumulating and that it is time to sleep. The internal circadian biological clocks regulate the timing of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day. This biological clock is controlled by a part of the brain called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), a group of cells in the hypothalamus that respond to light and dark signals. Disruptions to these systems can cause difficulties with sleep, like insomnia.
Learn more, visit the Sleep Foundation website.
Is the movie 50 First Dates realistic? Amnesia in movies is often problematic. There are two types of amnesia: anterograde and retrograde. In retrograde amnesia, people lose some memories from their past, but are still able to form new memories. Anterograde amnesia is the opposite: past memories are intact but patients are unable to lay down new memories. This is the kind of amnesia depicted in 50 First Dates. However, anterograde amnesia doesn’t “reset” every night like in this film. Rather, events are forgotten as soon as they leave working memory, or as soon as the brain stops actively working on the information. In practice, this means forgetting will occur every few minutes. The movie would have been very different if it portrayed true anterograde amnesia!
Ancient Egyptians removed organs and saved them in jars when a person died. However, the brain was thought to be unimportant, so it was just thrown away! Still, the ancient Egyptians wrote some of the oldest surviving medical texts about the brain, including specific cases of brain injury.
Learn more here.
There is a large variation in the number of neurons needed to form a brain. Animals like sponges don’t have any neurons, so they don’t have a brain at all. The tiny roundworm C. elegans has only 302 neurons, but this is enough for complex behaviors like learning, mating and looking for food. The organization of these neurons are identical in every worm, which is useful for scientists who study them. The number of neurons grows a lot from there—the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster has about 100,000 neurons, and the human brain has around 85 billion neurons! The overall structure of the brain (like lobes) is the same in most people, but unlike C. elegans, the connections between neurons develop in a completely different way for each individual. This allows us to better adapt to new situations. Interestingly, the African elephant has three times as many neurons as a human, but brain size doesn’t always dictate intelligence-- there are other factors that may affect intelligence, like the number of connections between neurons, brain size as a percentage of body size, the number of supporting cells in the brain, or the complexity of the synapses.
Though the brain works mostly in networks of communicating cells, some research has shown that single cells might recognize specific people’s faces. This idea, known as the “grandmother cell” theory, suggests that one single cell is responsible for recognizing one individual. Using electrodes to record responses from cells, scientists demonstrated that specific images elicit strong responses from one neuron. One study showed a cell responding strongly to pictures of Jennifer Aniston and nothing else. So, a specific type of cell could be involved in recognizing complex visual patterns, rather than just identifying simple shapes. However, if this is really true, losing that cell might mean losing the ability to recognize a person forever! At the very least, this research shows that individual brain cells are capable of more complex “thinking” than previously thought.
The structures remain the same. You will always have 4 brain lobes (frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital), a cerebellum (involved in coordination of movement and balance) and many gyri (bumps of the brain) and sulci (grooves of the brain).
However, everything you do in your life can have an impact at a cellular level (brain cells/ neurons). After you are born, your brain will get larger as it creates new brain cells. Your brain will keep growing until about 18 years of age. Every time you learn something, you create new connections between brain cells. You are also able to re-shape these brain connections through new experiences. This is called brain plasticity and continues throughout life!
No! There are many parts of the brain. We start the BrainReach year by describing the 4 lobes of the brain, as well as the cerebellum and brainstem. However, if we were to slice the brain in half lengthwise, we would see many other structures that are deep inside the brain. For example, you would see the corpus callosum (which connects the left and right hemisphere of the brain), and structures of the limbic system (involved in emotions, learning and memory). Every single part of the brain is connected. For example, injuring a part of the limbic system can impact connections it has with the frontal lobe.
Crowds gathered around the Science Centre at the Old Port on June 8-10, 2018 for the Eureka festival. It was BrainReach’s first time participating, and we had a blast! In the beautiful, sunny weather, our volunteers welcomed people of all ages, from school groups to families to curious individuals. We did some activities on touch perception, taste and smell, and of course our ever-popular brain and microscope activities. The kids may have come for the skittles, but they stayed for the science.
Congratulations to this year's Volunteer of the Year award winners!
High School winner: Lawrie Shahbazian
Lawrie just completed her M.Sc. in Dr. Stefano Stefani's lab at McGill University, and has been volunteering with BrainReach High School for the past 2 years. Not only does Lawrie consistently receive positive feedback from her classroom teachers, but she also volunteers regularly to represent BrainReach for Explore McGill and other one-day events. This year, Lawrie went above and beyond to organize a brain dissection activity on campus for a group of CEGEP students! We'd like to thank Lawrie for all her hard work. Congratulations on being named this year's BrainReach High School - Volunteer of the Year!
Elementary School winner: Edwin Wong
Edwin just completed his M.Sc. in Dr. Tim Kennedy's lab at McGill University, and has been volunteering with BrainReach Elementary for the past 3 years. We are constantly receiving positive feedback about Edwin's amazing teaching skills. Edwin modifies the BrainReach presentation slides to best suit his teaching ability and to improve upon the content delivered to his students. Throughout the school year, Edwin is often the first to volunteer to represent BrainReach at one-day events, including Explore McGill, the Gairdner Event and McGill's Explorations Summer Science Program. Thank you to Edwin for all his efforts and passion for teaching! Congratulations on being named this year's BrainReach Elementary - Volunteer of the Year!
North winner: Reiko
Reiko is working on her Ph.D. in Dr. Robert Zatorre’s lab at McGill University. She has been volunteering with BrainReach North for the past 2 years doing all sorts of jobs that make our teaching materials look great. This year, Reiko almost single-handedly put together our first animated video about brain sizes and shapes, providing a hands-off teaching tool for educators and students in remote communities and giving BrainReach North a model for our content going forward. She also designs our newsletter and prepares it to be sent out to teachers every month. Reiko is a diligent and hard worker, and clearly cares a lot about our goal of making (neuro)science more accessible. We’d like to thank Reiko for her effort and enthusiasm! Congratulations on being named this year's BrainReach North - Volunteer of the Year!
The brain has many layers to protect and suspend it in the skull. Under the skull, there is a layer of leathery tissue called the dura mater that encases the brain. Beneath is another layer called the arachnoid mater, named after its spiderweb-like form. Beneath the arachnoid mater is the arachnoid space, a network of proteins that forms a cushion and contains cerebrospinal fluid that suspends the brain in place. Finally, the pia mater wraps closely around all the sulci and gyri of the brain.