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.
Information about colour is gathered by cells called cones in the eye, which communicate directly with neurons. Each cone responds to a different frequency range of light. In most cases, colourblindness happens when cones that are supposed to capture different ranges of colour have too much overlap. This does not mean that these people see in black and white! It just means that the brain has a hard time telling the difference between two shades, like red and green.
There are now special glasses that eliminate the areas of overlap and allow people with colourblindness to see more normally. The glasses modify the light spectrum in a way that the brain can interpret more easily. Some people have four cones rather than the usual three, which is called tetrachromacy (from “tetra”, meaning four, and “chroma”, meaning colour). They can differentiate colours that we cannot. Some animals naturally have 4 cones as well, and can see colours in the ultraviolet range!
In labs, brains are chemically preserved with a chemical called formaldehyde which “fixes” the tissue and minimizes degradation of the sample. Scientists can then slice parts of the brain and add antibodies, which are other proteins that specifically bind to the proteins of interest in the brain. They can then quantify where and in what quantities specific proteins are expressed in different regions of the brain. Recently some efforts have been made to preserve the brain at very low temperatures in liquid nitrogen. This is called cryonics. Some people hope that we will be able to “revive” brains from these frozen samples, but this is highly debated.
Learn more about the cryonics debate here and here.
Glutamate (or glutamic acid) is an amino acid found in meat, tomatoes, and other foods. It is responsible for the “umami” taste. It is also found in a slightly different form as a neurotransmitter in the brain. The food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG), first used in Japan, is derived from fermented vegetables, and is indistinguishable from glutamate found in naturally-occurring proteins.
The brain maintains a low concentration of glutamate in the fluid surrounding its cells; the level in our bloodstream and in the rest of the body is much higher. This is possible because the brain is separated from the rest of the body by the blood-brain-barrier. For the most part, glutamate cannot cross this barrier unless it is actively transported by cells. So even if you ingest a lot of MSG with your food, it would be difficult for it to find its way into your brain! After some reports of people suffering from neurological symptoms after eating in certain restaurants, there has been a lot of research on the effects of MSG. When studies of MSG consumption are blind, meaning the researchers are unaware of which group ingested MSG while doing their analysis, there seems to be little difference between the two groups. The FDA has therefore classified it “generally considered as safe”.
Historically, men have dominated math, and some studies even showed males outperforming females on tasks of spatial abilities, including mental rotation, navigating spaces, etc. However, recent research suggests that the differences observed between boys and girls seem to be due to environmental factors. Gender stereotypes influence the likelihood of teachers and parents to encourage and train girls in math. Another factor is stereotype threat: women who think about their gender during a math task perform poorly, because “activating” their identity as a woman also activates the associated stereotype (“women are bad at math”). In one study, women performed better on a math test in a room full of other women, rather than in a room with more men than women. This evidence indicates boys and girls aren’t wired differently when it comes to math, and are affected by the social norms and stereotypes about their performance rather than their inherent ability.
See a scientific review of gender and intellectual abilities here.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar said that a person has a limit of about 150 social relationships. More specifically, it could range from 100 to 200 interactions depending on how social the person is. Our network of acquaintances may be three times as large as that of true friends.
Fun fact - there is a neurological condition called hyperthymesia in which someone will remember the name of every person he/she has ever met. In this case the number would be infinite! But for the rest of us, the number of people we can remember will be around 150.
The Zika virus was first discovered in the Zika forest of Uganda in 1947. The virus is spread primarily through mosquitos but can be transmitted sexually, through blood, and during childbirth. People infected with the virus will show mild symptoms, including fever and muscle and joint pain, lasting 2-7 days. Unfortunately, there are currently no vaccines against the virus.
The Zika virus gained worldwide attention a couple of years ago due to its association with microcephaly, a disorder causing smaller than normal brain and head size in babies born to infected mothers in Brazil in 2015. Microcephaly is thought to be caused by mutations in developmental genes, and it’s possible that the Zika virus may lead to similar mutations.
Microcephaly is a lifelong condition and occurs when the baby’s brain does not develop properly in the womb or stops growing after birth. The problems associated with microcephaly range from mild to severe, including intellectual disability, seizures, and developmental delay.
Learn more about Zika risk and prevention from the WHO & CDC, and microcephaly here.