Brain Awareness Week 2013

04/11/13

The year’s Brain Awareness Week events will culminate April 17 in a free public lecture by Cameron Carter, director of the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UC Davis School of Medicine.

The lecture, “Serious Mental Illness in Youth: Causes and the Quest for Cures,” is free and open to the public. It will be at the Veterans Memorial Center Club Room, 203 E. 14th Street in Davis, from 6 to 7 p.m. April 17.

In his talk, Carter will share what neuroscientists have learned about brain development, how changes in brain development can lead to serious mental health problems and how this new knowledge can lead to new and more effective approaches to improve mental health outcomes for young people and their families. Serious mental health problems will affect one in five people in the United States. Mental health problems are among the most common health problems affecting young people and most mental disorders begin before age 15.

Carter’s lecture will cap the educational outreach activities of Brain Awareness Week itself, which ran March 11 to 16. Professor Karen Zito and her team fanned out to area schools and the Davis Farmers Market, sponsoring fun public outreach events to teach people about their brains.

"I had always been excited to organize and participate in Brain Awareness Week outreach. Visiting the local schools is a key part because it is so very important to inspire the next generation of brain researchers. It is also very rewarding to share what we are doing as researchers to solve the mystery of how the brain works to allow us to perceive the world around us, to think, to learn and to remember. Finally, the public lecture enables us to directly communicate to the public the latest advances in understanding of and therapeutics for common neurological disorders," said Zito, who since 2007 has been coordinating the event for UC Davis through the national organizer, the Dana Foundation.

“Our brain and nervous system are unique in that they make up who we are and what we do, yet we do not fully understand how they work. BAW presents us the opportunity to teach students, sometimes for the first time, a little about how their nervous system works and how it is impacted by drugs, disease, and development,” added Ph.D. candidate Andrea Quintero.

This year, the BAW Farmers Market team shared posters they had made on topics such as brain disorders, brain anatomy, brain cells, vision and visual illusions. They also had a variety of workbooks for people of all ages, such as brain-teaser booklets for younger visitors, and pamphlets on memory and aging for the older crowd. In addition, they handed out information sheets on different topics such as stroke, memory, depression and autism.

But some of the most popular features were interactive activities, such as prism goggles that shift the wearer’s vision about 20 degrees to the right. Volunteers would put them on and be asked to try to give a high five or catch a ball.

“This just demonstrates how, after just a few minutes, your brain adapts to the vision shift and you are finally able to perform the tasks at hand,” said Staff Researcher at CNS Julie Culp, organizer of the Farmers Market booth. “Brain Awareness Week is important because it gives us the chance to get out of the lab and engage the public on all the research that is being done in this field. I feel that people are very interested in this subject, but they don't get the chance to, or don't have the time to find out the information they would like to know on their own.”

In the schools, outreach teams set up small presentations ranging from brain anatomy—complete with brains for students to hold and dissect—to drugs and addiction. The students visit the different stations, where they are taught basic concepts of neuroscience, for example what a neuron is, or the cutting-edge research on the effects of sleep on behavior.

According to Quintero, the students don’t just enjoy the activities—they are hungry for information.

“Many of the students we speak to know a friend or family member who is dealing with or has dealt with a mental illness or disorder. Often they are left uninformed about the origin and long-term effects of those illnesses on the people they love and potentially on themselves. It can be very helpful for the students to finally be able to ask someone about these illnesses or disorders,” Quintero said.

But not all the questions are heart-wrenching.

“My favorite question from a student at the Eye Function and Structure Station came from a girl who asked, ‘How do we know that the red that we see is the same as the red someone else sees?’” Quintero said. “In response to her question we were able to talk about differences in the visible light spectrum for different animals, the transduction of light into chemical activity in the retina, and the phenomenological questions of vision as a conscious experience. It was great to see students asking big questions and considering how science can answer these questions!”

She added that BAW is increasingly important as neuroscience emerges as a topic in mainstream discussions in the news and policy. “Especially with the president's new brain mapping initiative, we need to help educate the general public on what is known and not known about the brain. It is particularly crucial to help build science literacy in school age children and adolescents.”

“Plus, learning about neuroscience is fun, and if we can get kids and adults alike interested in this subject, think of all the new scientists and experiments that could be done in the future to learn more about the organ that makes us who we are,” Culp added.