April 27, 2016

The Amazing Brain Carnival

The Human Brain: Episode #9

Twice a year, the St. Louis Science Center hosts a carnival - but you won't find a carousel or a performer doing magic tricks. Instead, at the Amazing Brain Carnival, kids of all ages get to learn about the real-life magic happening inside their own bodies. Graduate students Dov Lerman-Sinkoff and Tyler Schlichenmeyer walk us through the carnival and share why, as neuroscience researchers, they want to reach out and inspire more people to get excited about the brain.



Full transcript

Claire Navarro: Thank you for listening to Hold That Thought. I’m Claire Navarro. In this week’s podcat, we are continuing our series on the human brain. My guests are graduate students Dov Lerman-Sinkoff and Tyler Schlichenmeyer. In addition to their own neuroscience research, Dov and Tyler are part of a group of graduate students who partner with the St. Louis Science Center to put on an event called the Amazing Brain Carnival. What’s a Brain Carnival, you ask? Let’s find out.

CN: So, what is the Brain Carnival? How did it get started, and what is it trying to accomplish?

Dov Lerman-Sinkoff: The Brain Carnival happens at the St. Louis Science Center as part of either HealthFest in the fall or NeuroDay in the spring. You walk into this room, and it’s got a carnival theme: the standard red and white stripes and everything. So you walk in, and the first thing that you see is a table where there are several human brain specimens, and there are graduate students there who will walk you through the different brain systems: How does your brain work? How does your brain process different sensory modalities? You can actually pick up and touch the brain. It’s really giving different people the opportunity to interact with and handle this amazing organ. I mean, we all have one, but how often do you actually get to see one and touch one? And then around the periphery of the room, there are tables with a grad-student at each table who has some sort of demonstration of his or her work in a way that is approachable and understandable by people from as young as 3 through 80. We talk about things like sensory phenomena. We talk about things like how stroke work. Why it’s important to wear a helmet. I’m sure there are others I am forgetting at the moment.

CN: Tyler, you actually gave one of these presentations. What were you trying to show these kids and adults about the brain?

Tyler Schlichenmeyer: I was demonstrating something called the rubber hand illusion where we basically sit the person down and we block their view of their arm and place a rubber hand down in front of them. Basically, what I do is I brush—I take a paintbrush, and I brush the rubber hand and their hand at the same time. Then their brain, basically, gets confused by the sensory information, and they feel like the rubber hand sitting in front of them is their own hand. It’s just a really cool little demonstration that someone can, kind of, personally feel how somebody with a fully integrated prosthetic limb, which is where my research is, might feel like a fake hand is actually their own hand.

CN: That is actually what I was going to ask: How does this relate to your own research? You said you work with prosthetics?

TS: Yeah, our lab does sensory prosthetics research. Basically we are working on a project where we can take electrodes and put the in the periphery nerve and electrically stimulate the nerve and hopefully transmit touch information to the brain. The trick is just getting the right stimulation patterns to get a proper touch sensation. We are still learning about a lot of the mechanisms behind that. But yeah, this demonstration is just kind of a little peak into the mechanisms behind all this sensory integration that is happening from all kinds of different sources like your eyes and your touch sensations and all that kind of stuff.

CN: What was exciting for both of you to share your research, or just excitement about the brain in general, with a bunch of people who probably don’t think about it that much?

DLS: For me, I think it is a really good way of staying in touch with the public and always sort of putting into focus for yourself why is it that I am in this program? Why is it that I am doing these studies? How can I explain things better? How can I be able to take what I have learned as a student and bring it to people who may not have had the same opportunities to learn that I’ve had, and really sharing this information and this excitement? For me, it’s so much fun to see that spark moment when a kid or an adult gets it. It’s really an instantaneous moment. You just see that light go off. And you can do it when you are correcting misconceptions about the brain or teaching about function or showing some sort of effect, like Tyler’s effect or some of the others.

TS: One of the things about public outreach, too, is that a lot of people don’t give themselves enough credit when it comes to learning about science and neuroscience. You know, they immediately go, “Oh, that’s too complicated for me. You guys are smart. You guys deal with that.” But engaging people and talking to them about your demonstration and how that ties into your research, people realize, “Oh, this kind of makes sense.” You know, science should be for everybody, and I think everybody should have at least a basic level of understanding. It’s good to get that out there to raise awareness about injuries and what kinds of problems we are working on, and people be have realistic about expectations and that kind of stuff.

CN: You mention people come in with misconceptions about the brain. What sort of facts about the brain or misconceptions do you want to correct when you are talking to people?

DLS: There are some sort of classic misconceptions that exist, like one of the biggies is the whole “left brain vs. right brain.” Right brain is creative; left brain is—what do people say—logical. It’s just not true. It is nowhere near that simple. There are some functions that are sort of localized to one side or the other, but it’s bunk.

CN: So, what’s one thing—well, there are probably lots of things, but try to say one thing—that you still want to know about the brain. What still continues to fascinate you?

DLS: I could talk about my research, but I think, in even more broader than that is, at least in terms of developmental processes, there is so much that’s going on in order to go from single cell to fully functioning human that there are so many steps where things can go wrong, but for the most part, this system seems to be so incredibly resilient and create so much diversity of experience for each individual. So how on earth that happens in this very systematic way, I think it is just incredibly fascinating and powerful. Will I think we ever totally understand it? I doubt it. Maybe. I don’t want to make a prediction. But just learning how development works is just fascinating.

CN: What about you, Tyler? Do you think people will ever understand everything about the brain?

TS: Um, I don’t see why not. I mean, humans are pretty smart, and hopefully we have a long, bright future ahead of us. But I don’t think there is anything necessarily intrinsic about the brain that we can never understand everything. I think it is important to have realistic expectations about what that might mean in our lifetime, but the brain is remarkably powerful. It’s always changing, and there is a lot of unexplored territory, for sure. I think we will definitely see a lot of advancement.

DLS: Yeah, I think that is one of the things that is so exciting about being in brain-related research these days, is that we are really starting to get the tools that allow us to ask questions that allow us to answer these questions about function. Until recently, we didn’t have the ability to ethically implant electrodes or to study someone in an MRI scanner or really ask what is the brain doing in these different situations. And we are starting. We are nowhere near full development, but we are in the area of having the tools.

CN: Maybe one of the kids you inspire at the Brain Carnival will continue the journey.

DLS: And that is definitely one of our goals. We want to get kids excited about science at a young age, so they can have that spark moment that pushes them to do better in school, to choose to go into a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) related field. Because we have so few kids doing that these days. So hopefully this can spark something, get them excited about it.

TS: And I think most of us at this stage, too, can look back on our lives and think of if not one or two moments then one of two people in our lives that have kind of, you know, tried to push us farther in our thinking and spark that curiosity as a scientist.

DLS: Yeah, I’m thinking of a math teacher I had many, many, many years ago, who I have actually kind of lost contact with, but she is one of those people for whom I would love to write a letter saying, “THANK YOU FOR PUSHING ME, because now I am doing X, Y, and Z.”

CN: Thank you to Dov Lerman-Sinkoff and Tyler Schlichenmeyer for joining Hold That Thought. For many more ideas to explore, including those about neuro-outreach efforts at Washington University in St. Louis, check us out onlne at holdthatthought.wustl.edu. You can also subscribe to our weekly podcasts on iTunes, Stitcher, PRX, or Soundcloud. Thanks so much for listening.