“What have you learned about the brain so far today?”
Hands shot into the air all around the 5th grade classroom at Linwood Elementary.
“I learned that you have to wear a helmet.”
“I knew this already, but that the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body.”
It was an unusual day. As a resident in pediatric neurology, I usually spend my days seeing patients in the hospital or in the clinic, talking about seizures and headaches, medications and MRIs.
That Tuesday, I found myself instead at Linwood Elementary, with neurology resident Madeline Nguyen, M.D.; pediatric neurology resident Ittai Bushlin, M.D., Ph.D.; and Mark Rutledge-Gorman, Ph.D., a researcher who works with the Portland Alcohol Research Center and is active in outreach to local schools.
We were having a blast.
“What kinds of things can a baby do?”
“Eat!” “Cry!” “Sleep!”
“Right, a baby’s brain only has to do a few things. But it’s learning and growing all the time. What can you do? What can your brain do?”
“Learn!” “Play sports!” “Read and write!”
“What about your teacher? What does her brain have to do?”
“She has to teach us!” “She has to make us stop talking!” “She has responsibilities!”
A few weeks before that day, Madeline, Ittai and I met with Mark to plan our time with the kids. Mark has been teaching kids about science, the brain, and the dangers of addiction for fifteen years. He has Powerpoint slides and a big plastic bin with modeling clay, brain coloring pages (for making brain hats) and other activities.
The aim, he said, was to teach them that their brains are still developing, and that they can influence how it develops. There are other aims too, like learning decision-making, or developing empathy.
If your little sister is annoying, maybe that’s just because her brain is less developed than yours. If your teacher is telling you to sit in your seat, maybe that’s because her brain is more developed than yours, and because she is responsible for your safety and your education.
While Ittai squished and rolled clay brains with half the class, I gathered the other half around a blue bucket.
“What will happen if you drop this egg into the bucket?”
“I know! I know! It will break.”
“Is that our hypothesis? What’s a hypothesis?”
“It’s a test!” “No, it’s a question!”
A brown-haired girl dropped the egg. It cracked, but didn’t break. Hypothesis tested.
“Let’s come up with another hypothesis. What will happen if I wrap this egg in newspaper and bubble wrap and put it in this box, then drop it into the bucket?”
The same girl dropped the wrapped egg. No cracks!
“Now let’s talk about helmets. How does a helmet protect your brain?”
Why did we all choose to spend that rainy Tuesday afternoon at Linwood Elementary?
First of all, we were there to help the kids learn about ways to protect their brains, by wearing helmets and avoiding alcohol and drugs.
There isn’t always enough time in a doctor’s appointment to explain not only what a child should do to be healthy, but why it’s necessary.
Hopefully, some of those children will think twice before getting on a bicycle without a helmet, or taking a first sip of alcohol.
Mark, Madeline, Ittai and I are also people who love science and the incredible things the brain can do, and we hope that our love might be infectious.
It never occurred to me that I could get a Ph.D. until I met professors when I was in high school. I didn’t think about getting a medical degree until I met doctors who did science and realized that those things could work together.
Maybe some of the kids in this class will see these doctors and scientists who are clearly very excited about brains, and start thinking that they, too, could study medicine or science.
And there’s another ulterior motive.
“Does anyone have any last questions?”
A boy stood up, his hand raised high.
“Have you ever touched a brain?”
I have. It was pretty cool. Sometimes I forget that what I get to do, every day, is amazing. There is nothing like the enthusiasm of a 5th grader to remind me that I am so lucky to have this awesome job.
I hope he gets to touch a brain someday.
Alison Christy, M.D., Ph.D.
Pediatric neurology resident
Oregon Health & Science University
Donate to the OHSU Brain Institute
With your support, our scientists can decode the genetic mysteries of neurological disease and create a new standard of care for patients affected by autism, ADHD and other neurodevelopmental disorders.