Battle of the Brains!

brainbeewinnersThe pavilion atop New York University’s Kimmel Center is enclosed entirely in glass, like the bridge of some starship, with the illuminated city of Manhattan laid out beyond. On a recent February evening, it was filled with teenagers eating chips and salsa, some nervous, some giddy and bantering with each other.
__ “Imagine being rich enough to live in a place like this.”
__ “You could never walk around naked.”
__ “Well, you could…”
__ The teens, along with a smattering of parents, educators and a few distinguished neuroscientists, were there for the New York City Regional Brain Bee. Over 50 students from almost 30 high schools had come to be quizzed by the neuroscientists about the human brain in a cutthroat competition. In the end, the kids knew, only one would be left standing. Some students sat quietly cramming with their Brain Facts books, others clustered in groups, joking and conferring. A shaggy-haired boy was holding forth to his friends when a precocious girl in a green shirt, her thick dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, interrupted him.
__ “You ruined my moment!” he cried.
__ “No, you just didn’t time your moment correctly,” she replied.
__ It is the kind of retort you’d expect of a future scientist. Such is the goal, anyway, of the Society for Neuroscience, co-sponsors of the Brain Bee, who created the event to encourage interest in the field of neuroscience among today’s youth. The teens, each of whom were either selected to represent their schools or won their place through a school-wide competition, have the chance to win $250 and an all-expense-paid trip to Baltimore, Maryland, to represent New York City in the National Brain Bee. A three-person panel headed by award-winning NYU professor and author Joseph LeDoux, Ph.D., would judge their answers. Before the competition began, Dr. LeDoux, a hip-looking man in his 50s with a small goatee, said a few words, encouraging the students to pursue neuroscience as a career.
While the field has made great advances in specific areas, he said, “We still need a theory of the big picture. We need to know how the brain really works. That is still the challenge.” It is a challenge that he hoped would be taken up by young men and women in the room. His introductory remarks completed, he began the competition.
__ The students had 30 seconds to write their answers down on cards and hold them up for the judges. Spelling doesn’t count. In the beginning, the Brain Bee lacked the nail-biting drama of a spelling bee, because students only needed to correctly answer two out of five questions. As the rounds progressed, the questions became harder, fewer wrong answers were permitted, and the tension began to mount.
__ “Name two of four hormones released in response to stress.”
__ Those hormones—cortisol, adrenaline, endorphins and epinephrine—were likely coursing through the competitors’ brains that very moment, inducing a fight-or-flight response and interfering with their cognition when they needed it most. Their shoulders were hunched with tension, and sweat was visible on their shirts. Round six, where students must get four out of five correct answers, was a massacre, clearing the field of all but five students.
__ By round eight, there were four. They lined up at the front of the room. The questions started coming one after another, and more than one missed answer would result in elimination. Finally, just two girls remained. Both had one wrong answer; the next question missed would end the competition.
__ “What is the name of the neurons that control the sensitivity of muscle spindles?”
__ Motor neurons, the correct answer, appeared on just one girl’s card. Rebecca Ehrhardt, of the Institute of Collaborative Education in Manhattan, the girl who corrected the timing of her friend’s moment, had won. Rewarded, her brain released the neurotransmitter dopamine, and she smiled for the rest of the night.

Brain Awareness Week

Rebecca Ehrhardt will be going on to the National Brain Bee at the University of Maryland on March 20, 2009, as part of Brain Awareness Week. Since 1996, Brain Awareness week has helped spread the news about the brain. Events like the Brain Bee and school science fairs can inspire young people to embark on careers in neuroscience and related fields. The Dana Foundation, founder of Brain Awareness Week, coordinates activities with over 2,200 partners in 76 countries, ranging from schools to hospitals to government agencies. These days, discoveries about the brain occur almost daily. Many of these advances can impact people’s health and quality of life, and Brain Week helps spread the word. Check it out! (bw)

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