Feb 5, 2013

Up close and personal with the human brain

McGill neuroscience provides students with opportunity to touch real life human brains

Caity Hui

Not many students can say they have touched a human brain, but thanks to the Neuroscience Undergraduates of McGill (NUM), I— along with around 130 other McGill students—can attest to holding not one, but six.

On Jan 30, NUM hosted the first event of its kind at McGill: Touching Human Brains . Held at the Strathcona Anatomy and Dentistry Building Histology Lab, students from all faculties at McGill were invited to see, touch, and learn about bonafide human brains. Entrance to the event was by donation (a recommended five dollars), and all proceeds were donated to AmiQuebec, a non-profit organization focused on helping families manage the effects of mental illness through support groups, education, and counselling.

According to NUM’s VP External, Maria Zamfir, most undergraduate students in the neuroscience program rarely have the opportunity to handle human brains, despite dedicating most of their time at McGill to understanding the nervous system.

“To be fair, we study the brain, its development, [and] its function and malfunction in disease in such detail, that simply looking at a brain with your own eyes won’t help you learn the underlying molecular mechanism,” says Zamfir. “However, having this opportunity after learning for three years about the central and peripheral nervous system is a really rewarding, beautiful, and quite humbling experience.”

Touching Human Brains was organized to provide students with the opportunity to examine one of the most complex organs in the universe. The room was set up to include several stations, including a pre-brain-touching area, which included slides of brain sections to observe, and computers set up with presentations to provide more information about the six brains featured at the event.

In addition to the incredible opportunity to observe and handle human brains, students were also able to talk with several professors and TAs who specialize in areas of neuroscience about the brains they were holding and any other questions regarding the nervous system. These included Dr. Naguib Mechawar, who works at the Douglas Brain Bank and studies depression; Melanie Segado, TA for ANAT 321 (Circuitry of the Human Brain); and Jean-Sebastian Provost, head TA for the laboratory portion of ANAT 321. All three stayed for the entire event to help students with general brain questions.

Dr. Mechawar, in particular, played a critical role in organizing the event. Through the Douglas Brain Bank, he lent NUM two brains—one from a person who suffered from major depression and committed suicide, and another from someone who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Students were able to observe, and handle these organs, allowing them to compare the differences between healthy and diseased brains.

I was surprised to discover that while the Alzheimer’s brain had clear indications of disease—it weighed half the amount of a regular brain—I could not see, nor feel any noticeable differences between the brain of someone with depression and that of someone without.

Dr. Brawer, professor of ANAT 321, was also incredibly supportive of the event.

“[Brawer] is aware of the fact that students don’t usually get the opportunity to hold a real human brain,” says Zamfir.

Along with providing the histology lab where Touching Human Brains was held, Brawer organized the donation of four other brains from McGill’s anatomy wet lab. Dr. Keith Murai, associate professor and researcher, donated the gloves worn by students.

Wearing my borrowed lab coat and goggles, I was amazed at the weight of a human brain. It was much heavier than I expected— though the formaldehyde in which brains are preserved adds some additional weight. In addition, the brain was smooth to touch and larger than I imagined. Other students, many of whom came from neuroscience and psychology, also marvelled at the experience.

Touching Human Brains provided a highly unique and exciting opportunity for students from all faculties to learn about the nervous system, talk to experienced professors and TAs from the field of neuroscience, and cross “touch a human brain” off from their bucket lists.

“When you get to hold a brain in your hands—a complex computing machine that functions more efficiently and in a more complicated manner than any computer made by man—that’s something. It’s what defines human life!” Says Zamfir.

As a result of its success— during the three hours of Touching Human Brains, the Neuroscience Undergraduates of McGill raised $570.81—NUM plans to make Touching Human Brains an annual event. Look for it next year, because this opportunity is not one you want to pass up.

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