By Susan Gale
It is truly amazing how many illnesses start with the brain – including many that make our children’s lives more difficult.
ADHD, learning and processing difficulties, mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, Autism, Addiction, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Migraines, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, not to mention brain injuries to our soldiers and people in car accidents … the list goes on.
And yet, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) spends a fraction on brain study, known as neuroscience, then it does on some other diseases. “It’s been seriously underfunded for two decades,” said Victoria Heimer-McGinn, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Providence College and Chair of this year’s Brain Week Rhode Island .
Brain Week is part of an effort to change that by bringing more focus to brain research and educating the public so federal office holders will pay more attention.
Plus, it’s just cool to get to look at real brains and learn about them!
A week of brain food
The third annual Brain Week runs from March 10-18 with activities across the state from Woonsocket to South Kingston – and most of its offerings are free.
For parents, two Brain Fairs are a sure bet for fun with the kids. The fairs will feature interactive exhibits for the entire family that showcase the work of local neuroscience laboratories and other organizations. Microscopes, virtual reality, real human brains, robots, face painting, and crafts will captivate even the youngest visitors. At both fairs there will be a free performance of Brain Circus! by Marvelous Marvin.
Other activities during Brain Week include creative learning opportunities, expert panels, workshops, film screenings, dance for the aging and movement challenged, three story telling events, an art exhibit, and visual and performing arts by people with autism.
Topics range from the basic science of just how the most complex object in the known universe works, to how it can be damaged or malfunction, with special events focused on mental illness, obsessive compulsive disorder, migraine headaches, and Alzheimer’s disease.
See the end of this article for a breakdown of Brain Week activities by age appropriateness so you can plan your week! You can also check out the latest Brain Week schedule online.
Why study the brain?
“The brain is so incredibly complicated,” said Heimer-McGinn. “You can have 10 symptoms with schizophrenia and the underlying genetic cause for each of the symptoms can be completely different. It’s a massive, massive puzzle. And it’s trial and error, we know a lot about these [brain] diseases but don’t have a cure.”
She points out that many brain diseases are farther from cures than other illnesses, which may have less stigma attached to them. For instance, for depression, doctors treat patients with medicines that may or may not work for that patient, based on past experiences of other patients.
“Say you needed surgery, you would want the best doctor, the best hospital,” she said. “If you walked into the hospital and they said, well, let’s try this, it worked for others, you wouldn’t do that. Diagnostic tests – we don’t have that for the brain yet. We’re just so far behind. A lot of the issue is how society views [depression].”
Heimer-McGinn came to study the brain in a round-a-bout way. She was a dance major in college who planned to go to medical school. But after college, she did a Fulbright Scholarship in a Norway neuroscience lab and has been hooked on the brain ever since.
She holds a PHD in Neuroscience and her research focuses on the brain’s ability to understand spatial context, which is crucial to higher-order functions like decision-making, memory, and attention. She studies how these functions are disrupted by neuropsychiatric diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Brain science in the schools
Every day is different as a scientist, said Heimer-McGinn. For each study, she does every part, from writing the proposal for funding to running experiments with rats (who are wonderful she claims) to sifting through data and writing the final report.
Heimer-McGinn loves how varied her work is and wants kids to know this and consider a career in science. As part of Brain Week, she and other scientists do presentations in Providence area schools. They also visit schools throughout the year. Check here for information about booking a presentation.
How to keep your brain healthy
One key to keeping your brain healthy into old age, said Heimer-McGinn, is to do a variety of tasks that use different parts of your brain. Exercise, nutrition, education, and having healthy social interactions also play a big role, she said.
“The more types of tasks you perform in adulthood, the more protected you are in old age,” she said. “You can take walks in places you’ve never been. There’s tons of data that exercising means you will be much better at cognitive tasks later in life.”
Rhode Island at the forefront of neuroscience
You’ve seen it on TV shows or read about it – a person with a missing limb has micro-electrodes placed in their brain and just has to think to move an artificial arm or leg. This idea started right here in little Rhody.
In 2002, a Brown University spin-off/startup medical device company, Cyberkinetics, Inc., helped to launch pilot clinical trials of a first-generation neural interface system, which led to an initial human device called the BrainGate Neural Interface System, according to the BrainGate website.
Today, the BrainGate team has expanded and is “developing and testing practical, groundbreaking medical devices to restore communication, mobility and independence to people affected by neurologic disease, paralysis, or limb loss,” according to its website. The team includes Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Stanford University, Case Western Reserve University, and the Providence VA Medical Center.
“Rhode Island is very much on the map when it comes to neuroscience,” Heimer-McGinn said.
Brain Week Rhode Island was created by Providence-based national research advocacy organization Cure Alliance for Mental Illness, which was founded by Heimer-McGinn’s father, Hakon Heimer, who is the organization’s CEO.
Brain Week coincides with International Brain Awareness Week. Locally, Brain Week is organized by Cure Alliance for Mental Illness, with major sponsorship from the Brown Institute for Brain Science and the University of Rhode Island’s George & Ann Ryan Institute for Neuroscience.
Susan Gale is Publisher of Kidoinfo.com.
Brain Week activities by age appropriateness
March 10: Through Our Eyes: Self-Portrait, Artists on the Autism Spectrum: All ages
March 11: Providence Brain Art Fair & Opening Reception: All ages
March 12: Alzheimer’s Disease Expert Talk and Study Participation: Adults
March 13: Mental Tapas: Reframing Mental Illness: Older kids and adults
March 14: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: When Too Much is Not Enough: Young adults and adults
- Dance for All People: Dance for Aging and Movement Challenges: All ages
- Neuro-Advocacy in Lil’ Rhody: Brain Health, Brain Illness, and Brain Research: Young adults and adults
- Alzheimer’s Movie Screening and Panel: “Still Alice”: Movie is rated PG-13
- Out of My Head: New Documentary About Migraine Disease (RIH): Middle school and up
- The Story Collider: Older kids and adults
- University of Rhode Island Brain Fair: All ages
- Out of My Head: New Documentary About Migraine Disease (Brown): Middle school and up