Pipe Cleaners, Gel Prints, Electrodes & Brains!

We were thrilled to return to one of the nation’s largest Brain Fairs on Saturday, to kick off Brain Awareness Week with piles of pipe cleaners, jars of block printing ink, numerous sketch pads, electrodes, Mindflex Duels, “spiker” boxes, real formalin-fixed cerebrums  –  and almost 30 enthusiastic Noggin volunteers!

LEARN MORE:  Brain Awareness Week (BAW) is the global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research

LEARN MORE:  OHSU Brain Institute Brain Fair

ROAD TRIPS AND NEW BRAINS:  See what else we’ve got planned for Brain Awareness Week!

We had three long tables at this year’s OHSU/OMSI Brain Fair, and our first shift arrived early to unload supplies.  The Psychology Department at Portland State University and the Portland Alcohol Research Center (PARC) at OHSU had generously covered the ink, paper, nitrile gloves, and of course the colorful, bendable wire stems that we use to craft those diverse cells that carry currents and make us who we are…

The OMSI doors opened at 10:00am, and the people poured in!

Thankfully, we had a big crowd of welcoming grads and undergrads, including Andrea Anaya, Alex Kunz, Andrew Stanley, Thomas Madison, Mieya Romine, Rebekah Hough, Leota Wolford, Sulema Rodriguez, Jobe Ritchie, Anita Guchait, Aliese Poole, Kirk Wydner, Allie Clark, Jessica Patching-Bunch and Ian Anderson from PSU, Heather Hamilton and Kayla Townsley from PSU and the NIH BUILD EXITO research training program, Rebecca Hood, Andre Walcott, Alfredo Zuniga and Erika Cuellar from Behavioral Neuroscience at OHSU, Matthew Carlisle, Angela Gonzalez, Christina Williams and Gianfranco DiCarlo from WSU Vancouver, and Kim Engeln from both WSUV and Reed College Biology!

We had so many volunteers in fact, that we shared them with additional presenters at the Fair, including the Portland Alcohol Research Center, and the YES! outreach program of the Fair Neuroimaging lab at OHSU

We divided our tables into multiple zones, including one end for BRAINS!  We introduced a new Noggin minke whale brain on Saturday  –  a gift from a Portland State marine biologist excited about community outreach… 🙂

Of course we also had additional human, mouse and sheep brains, too..!

One measure of attendance is the number of gloves distributed between 10am and 5pm  –  an entire carton!  That’s twelve boxes of 100 gloves each, so at least 600 people held brains and learned about brain research!!

At the other end of our Noggin tables, we had electricity to spare, including the battery-powered Mindflex Duel, which let Brain Fair visitors test their ability to control a hovering ball on a moving track using changes in thought alone…

A single EEG electrode over your left frontal lobe records your brain’s activity, which changes with gross changes in cognition  –  a signal that is wirelessly transmitted to the game’s base station to move the ball…

LEARN MORE:  Making a human @ P:ear

Kirk Wydner, the Noggin Resource Council Member for Technology, spent the entire day gamely getting shocked by visitors using Backyard Brains awesomely compelling Human to Human Interface!  This particular device consists of an Arduino micro-controller circuit board which receives electrical input from electrodes placed over muscles on one subject’s arm…

When that individual moves their hand, it signals the Arduino, which activates a Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation (or TENS) unit  –  that’s basically a fancy way to say it delivers an electric shock from a 9 volt battery!

Sometimes a Brain Fair visitor would choose to get the shock..!

All this demonstrates how information is carried by electricity  –  moving charges  –  both in copper wires, and in those biological axon wires that make up neural networks allowing us to move, perceive, remember and decide…

Now in the middle of our Noggin tables, we made art  –  and lots of it!  Our theme today was neurons, and people crowded in, twisting pipe cleaners into pyramidal and Purkinje cells, and rolling ink across carefully arranged plant material on our new reusable gels (thank you PSU and PARC!!).  Some beautiful, eye-catching prints were the result…


LEARN MORE:  Neurons for the people!

This particularly gorgeous print (below, by Noggin volunteer Leota Wolford) reminded us of the great Spanish neuroanatomist Ramon y Cajal’s quote about his own Golgi-stained neuron drawings…

“Like the entomologist in search of colorful butterflies, my attention has chased in the gardens of the grey matter cells with delicate and elegant shapes, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, whose beating of wings may one day reveal to us the secrets of the mind…”

LEARN MORE:  Cajal + Creativity @ the NIH

As the day progressed, a rather striking gallery of diverse and colorfully networked neurons developed on the wall behind our volunteers!

A neuron from the claustrum..?  

LEARN MORE:  A giant neuron found wrapped around entire mouse brain

We lost our voices answering great questions about drugs, epilepsy, dementia, balance disorders, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, ALS, the benefits of exploratory behavior, the meninges, the cerebellum, adolescent brain development, plasticity  –  the list goes on!

We were honored to attend.  Many thanks to Kate Stout at the OHSU Brain Institute and the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry for organizing this popular public celebration of brain research, education and outreach!

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