Teaching Kids How Their Brains Work

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

The 10th annual Brain Awareness Week (BAW), a science and health education fair held in various locations across the United States, teaches fifth through eighth grade students about the brain. In Washington, D.C., it will take place March 16-20, 2009, at the National Museum of Health and Medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Several institutes from the National Institutes of Health will provide interactive exhibits and lectures focusing on brain health and neuroscience on March 18th and 19th. Participating institutes include: the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute on Aging (NIA), and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

BAW is an annual international partnership of government agencies, scientific organizations, universities, and volunteer groups organized by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a nonprofit organization of more than 200 pre-eminent neuroscientists dedicated to advancing education about the brain.

"We hope to seize this opportunity to inspire young people with the fascination of brain science," said Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of NIMH, the lead institute in this year's program. "Young researchers from our labs will be communicating their excitement to a potential future generation of neuroscientists."

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

NIMH's presentation, "The Wonders of the Brain," focuses on perception. Led by young scientists in the NIMH Division of Intramural Research, students will have the opportunity to explore how the mind plays tricks with images it sees, such as the elephant with too many legs or the old crone who transforms into a beauty before your eyes. One interesting scientific anomaly that the students will explore is the Stroop effect, first identified in 1935. If you try to name the physical color of a word, the word itself can interfere with the process of naming the color of the word. If the word and color don't match, it often takes even longer to name the color. The purpose of the exhibit is to help the participants think about how their brains work in order to become brain aware.

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)


The National Institute on Drug Abuse will be playing an interactive game, NIDA Derby. The students will be divided into two teams, each of which will have the opportunity to answer questions related to how abused drugs act in the brain and body. The winners will receive a "Brain Scientist" certificate.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

Within NIAAA's novel, multi-sensory exhibit, students will be exposed to the amazing "Drunken Brain," pulsating with electricity and basking in the world of colored lights and eerie sounds, while a scientist from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) explains why alcohol interferes with sensory perception, movement, balance, and memory, and demonstrate which brain circuits are involved in alcohol dependence and alcoholism.

National Institute on Aging (NIA)

A scientist with the NIA's Division of Neuroscience will be giving a presentation on the complexity of the brain. She will explore the uniquely human qualities such as memory, speech and abstract thinking that reside in the brain, and will provide the students with methods designed to maintain the health of their brains throughout life.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)

In the "Night of the Living Brain" exhibit, NINDS neuroscientists will give an interactive demonstration about sleep and how it is related to brain function. Students will learn that the need for sleep is widespread throughout the animal kingdom, the brain is active during sleep, and that sleep might help strengthen memories. At the end of the demonstration, students will test their knowledge by playing a game similar to the television show "Jeopardy." Winners will receive an NINDS stress ball shaped like a brain.