Brain Awareness Week Launched at Museum of Health and Medicine
By John Ohab
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 20, 2009 Hundreds of middle school students have passed through the halls of the National Museum of Health and Medicine here this week to learn about brain anatomy and pathology, as well as military medical history, as part of National Brain Awareness Week.
The students got to hold a human brain, view the bullet that killed President Abraham Lincoln, and learn about the role the museum has had in military and civilian medicine since its Civil War beginnings, Tim Clarke Jr., the museum’s director of communications, said during a March 18 “Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military” audio Webcast on Pentagon Web Radio. The museum is an element of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and is located on the campus at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here.
“The idea is … to have young people really inspired about neuroscience and to understand a little more about the brain in a context that they might not be able to get in the classroom today,” Clarke said.
Established in 1996 by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a private philanthropic foundation, Brain Awareness Week connects government agencies, universities, scientific societies and other partners to bring neuroscience-based education to young audiences. This year’s Brain Awareness Week is March 16 to 22.
Since 1999, the Dana Alliance has worked with the museum and other partners including the National Institutes of Health, George Washington University, Howard University, the Society for Neuroscience, the Tug McGraw Foundation, the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, and the Army Audiology and Speech Center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“We want to find a way through Brain Awareness Week to connect many of the various disciplines that are involved in neurosciences,” Clarke said. “And work with those groups to put together very compelling, persuasive, hands-on demonstrations for young people.”
The museum maintains the world’s largest and most comprehensive neuroanatomical collection, which offers Brain Awareness Week participants a unique, first-hand opportunity to learn about brain anatomy and pathology. Students, chaperones and parents all have a chance to handle actual human brains.
“The look of awe and wonder on a young person’s face when they are holding an actual human brain is something you really have to see to believe,” Clarke said. “Nothing they had ever done compares to being able to hold a brain with the spinal cord still attached.”
This year’s Brain Awareness Week includes a new partnership with The Tug McGraw Foundation, which was created by professional baseball player Tug McGraw in 2003 to facilitate research that will improve the lives of those suffering from brain tumors. The foundation taught kids how to start their mornings with brain exercises designed to increase blood flow.
Clarke noted that Brain Awareness Week also highlights the variety of federal agencies conducting important basic and clinical neuroscience research. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism stages an obstacle course that students traverse while wearing “fatal vision goggles,” which distort eye-muscle coordination and simulate the loss of balance induced by alcohol intoxication. In addition, the Army Audiology and Speech Center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center informs students about how the center works with soldiers, veterans and their families to treat communication disorders.
“We try to find ways to engage the students on their level,” Clarke said. “They are starting and ending the day with a lot of very interesting and compelling scientific information.”
Students who participated in Brain Awareness Week also had the opportunity to view the museum’s newest exhibition, “Abraham Lincoln: The Final Casualty of War,” which features several of its most popular artifacts. The exhibit honors the nation’s 16th president with various items associated with his last hours and the Army doctors who cared for him. On display is the actual bullet that took Lincoln’s life and fragments of hair and skull that were gathered during his autopsy in the White House.
“We are able to tell a really interesting story that people know about, but we tell a different side of the story than you might get in the history textbooks,” Clarke said.
The museum was founded in 1862 during the Civil War to collect anatomical specimens that could be used to develop new treatments for injuries sustained during battle. The museum, once led by Walter Reed, also played a role in shaping modern germ theory and an understanding of infections, as well as helping to found the Army Medical School and various clinical libraries focused on treating soldiers.
“It was Army Medical Museum staff, curators and scientists over the latter half of the 19th century that worked with partners all over the world to indoctrinate those types of practices into Army medicine,” Clarke said.
(John Ohab holds a doctorate in neuroscience and works for the Defense Media Activity’s New Media directorate.)