Modeling the Nervous System

Sometimes the best way to learn about something is to hold it in your hand. What better way to learn about the different parts of the nervous system than to make them yourself.

Make a Neuron

For grades 3-12

Create a model of a neuron by using clay, playdough, styrofoam, recyclables, food or anything else you can get your hands on. Use pictures from books to give you an idea of where the components of a neuron should go and what shape they should be. Use different colors to indicate different structures. Make a neural circuit with a few of the neurons. Create sensory or motor systems. Eat your model if you made it out of food!!

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Neuron...in a BAG!

For grades 3-12

An edible neuron? Mix one box of Jell-O with water by following the directions on the Jell-O box. After the Jell-O has cooled to a warm temperature, pour it into small plastic bags. Add fruits (canned fruit cocktail works well) and candies to the Jell-O to represent the organelles you would find inside of a neuron. For example, mandarin orange slices could be mitochondria; a cherry half could be the nucleus; red and black string licorice could be microtubules and neurofilaments. The plastic bag can represent the cell membrane. Don't forget ribosomes, the golgi apparatus and endoplasmic reticulum. You should also make a "legend" of your cell so you remember which food represents which organelle. Write your legend on some card stock or index card. After all the "organelles" have been added, tie off the top of the bag with a twist tie and place the "cell" in the refridgerator. When the Jell-O gets firm, take it out, and compare your neuron to other neurons. Then, have a snack...a neuron snack.

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Simple Neuron Model

For grades K-12

Here's the most simple model of a neuron I can think of...and you don't need any supplies. It's your hand! Hold out your arm and spread your fingers. Your hand represents the "cell body" (also called the "soma"); your fingers represent "dendrites" bringing information to the cell body; your arm represents the "axon" taking information away from the cell body.

Materials: NONE

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Model a Brain

For grades K-12

Create a model of the brain by using clay, playdough, styrofoam, recyclables, food, etc. Create a whole brain or use a brain atlas and create cross-sections of the brain at different levels. Use different colors to indicate different structures.

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Brain "Recipes"

Here are two recipes for the construction of a model brain:

Recipe 1 (from the Pacific Science Center and the Group Health Cooperative in Seattle, WA)

Materials:

Combine the all of the ingredients in the ziplock bag and mix thoroughly. It should weigh about 3 lbs. (1.35 kg.) and have the consistency of a real brain.

Recipe 2 (from BrainLink)

Materials:

Mix the water, flour and cream of tartar in a large bowl or blender until the lumps disappear. Then mix in vegetable oil. Put the entire mixture into a sauce pan and "cook" it over low heat until it gets lumpy. Pour the mixture out and let it cool. Then knead and shape it into the form of a brain. Don't forget to add wrinkles (gyri) to your brain. Squirt in red food coloring for blood vessels.

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Jello Brain

Grades K-12

There are several places to get jello molds in the shape of the brain. Four places that I know of to buy these molds:

  1. Anatomical Chart Company
  2. "The Brain Store" (phone: 1-800-325-4769)
  3. A seattle store called Archie McPhee's.
  4. The American Medical Assocation

For $11.95 (plus shipping) you get a gelatin mold of the top half of the brain. Make brains over and over again. You can also model the meninges (coverings) of the brain by using layers of plastic wrap on top of your jello brain. Make sure everyone gets a taste. Now that's what I call brain food!

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Make the Bones of the Spinal Column (Vertebrae)

For grades K-12

spinalThe human spinal cord is protected by the bony spinal column shown. There are 31 segments of the spinal cord and 33 bones (vertebrae) that surround these segments. There are 7 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar, 5 sacral and 4 coccygeal vertebrae in the human body. To model these bones, get 33 empty spools of thread (buttons may also work or slices of paper towel holders). Run a string or thread through the middle of one the spools or buttons. Tie-off one end of the string and put the remaining spools or buttons on the string. Each spool (or button) will represent one vertebra. When your model is finished, noticed how it can bend. In a real spinal column, the vertebrae are held together by ligments.

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Color a Brain

For grades K-3

Download or xerox a picture of the brain and color it. Use different colors to color the different lobes of the brain.

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Cap Head...No, it's your Brain!

For grades K-3

A great way to introduce the brain. Get a white swimming cap - you know, the kind that pulls on tight over your head. Draw an outline of the brain on the cap with a black marker. To introduce the brain to your class, wear the cap!! It is a great way to start a discussion.

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Connect the Dots

For grades K-6

This exercise is to illustrate the complexity of the connections of the brain. Draw 10 dots on one side of a piece of paper and 10 dots on the other side of the paper. Assume these dots represent neurons, and assume that each neuron makes connections with the 10 dots on the other side of the paper. Then connect each dot on one side with the 10 dots on the other side. As you can see from the diagram below, it gets very complicated after a while. I have only connected 4 of the "neurons".

Remember that this is quite a simplification. Each neuron (dot) may actually make thousands of connections with other neurons. If you tried this your paper would be really messy!!



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Compare and Contrast

For grades K-12

What better model of the brain than a REAL BRAIN!! Try to get "loaner" brains (human and animal) from your local university (try medical schools, Departments of Biology, Zoology, Psychology). Some animal supply companies also sell brains (see the Resource Page). You may be able to find cow or pig brains at the supermarket or local butcher.

Try to get a "Brain Atlas" or look at some pictures of the brains here at Neuroscience for Kids or visit the Mammalian Brain Collection at the University of Wisconsin). This will aid the identification of brain structures.

Make sure you wear gloves when handling any specimens. Also be aware that some brains may be perserved with formaldehyde solutions which have an unpleasant odor and also should be handled with care.

After you have collected all the specimens:

Compare and Discuss:

  1. What are their similarities and differences between the brains?
  2. What are their relative sizes?
  3. Identify areas of the brain. Cortex? Cerebellum? Cranial nerves?
  4. Are their noticeable differences in any particular parts of the brains?
  5. Is the cortex smooth or rough?
  6. Compare placement of the cerebellum and spinal cord.
  7. Compare size of olfactory bulb.
  8. Compare size of cerebral cortex.
  9. Discuss brain weight vs body weight issues.
  10. Discuss brain size and intelligence.
  11. Discuss language and brain size.
  12. Discuss cortical expansion in higher species.

Use a long knife (for LAB USE ONLY!) to make a midsaggital cut (a cut right down the middle, the long way from front to back) to split the brain in half if you want to see internal structures (and if the brains belong to you). Identify and compare internal brain structures using the brain atlases. Some areas of the brain that should be easy to identify are the:

Try making some sections of the brain. These can be coronal (frontal) sections (across the brain, side to side) to see other brain structures not visible along the midline. Identify and compare what you see.

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Model a Retinal Image

Grades 4-12

The brain has a tough job. Here it is, working all the time, and the eye has to make things difficult. The convex nature of the lens of the eye turns an image upside on the retina. The brain must make sense of this and turn it "right-side up". To model what a convex lens does to an image, get a magnifying glass. Find a white wall or tape a white piece of paper to a wall that faces a window. Hold the magnifying glass close (3 in; 10 cm) to the white wall or paper. You should see an inverted image of whatever is outside of the window. This is what is projected onto your retina.

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Message Transmission

Grades 3-6

A message traveling in the nervous system can go 200 miles/hr! These signals are transmitted from neuron (nerve cell) to neuron across "synapses". Let's make a chain of neurons...have everyone stand up and form a circle. Each person in the circle is going to be a neuron. Each person should be about arms length away from the next person. When the teacher says "GO", have one person start the "signal transmission" by slapping the hand of the adjacent person. This second person then slaps the hand of the next person. The third person then slaps the hand of the next person and the "signal" goes around the circle. The transmission is complete with the "signal" goes all the way around the circle. You can also measure the time it takes the signal to get around the circle with a stopwatch. Also measure the approximate distance the signal must travel (the total distance of the circle). If you then divide the distance by the time, you will get the speed (conduction velocity) of the signal. The conduction velocity of this model chain of neurons will most likely be much slower than 200 miles/hr.

(As an alternative to a "slap" to transmit the signal, you could pass a small container of colored water or an "ice-pop". The colored liquid will represent a neurotransmitter that crosses the synapse.)

Questions:

Materials:

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Saltatory Conduction

Grades 3-12

Saltatory conduction is a way that myelinated axons transmit action potentials. Action potentials jump from node to node. To model this, have everyone stand up and form a straight line. Each person should be at arms length of the next person. Give the last person in line a small object like a ball or an eraser. This time, each person does NOT make up an individual neuron. This time, everyone together is a SINGLE neuron and each person is a "myelinated section" of an axon. The space between each person is a node of Ranvier. To start the axon potential, someone should say "go". The first person will slap the hand of the neighboring person, then that person will slap the hand of the next person etc., etc. Remember, in this model, the line of people is just one neuron.

When the action potential gets the the last person holding the object, have this person toss the object into the air. This represents the neurotransmitter (the object) floating out into the synaptic cleft (the air).

Don't forget to read more about saltatory conduction

Materials:

None

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Nervous System Kid

Grades K-6

It's a bird, it's a plane....no it's "Nervous System Kid" (also known as "Brain Boy" or "Gyri Girl")!! Get a large piece of butcher paper - large enough for a student to lie down on. Have a student lie down on this paper and outline his or her body. Now fill-in and color this outline with parts of the nervous system. The brain and spinal cord should be easy. Don't forget the sense organs (eyes, ears, mouth, nose, skin). Follow a diagram of the peripheral nerves to add more features to your drawing. Also, label the structures that are drawn.

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Mr. Egghead - The Cerebrospinal Fluid

Grades 3-12

The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) has several functions. One of these functions is to protect the brain from sudden impacts. To demonstrate how this works, we need to bring in "Mr. Egghead". Mr. Egghead is a raw egg with drawn-on face. The inside of the egg represents the brain and the egg shell represents the pia mater (the inner most layer of the meninges or coverings of the brain.

Put Mr. Egghead in a container (tupperwear works fine) that is a bit larger than the egg. The container represents the skull. Now put a tight top on the container and shake it. You should observe that shaking the "brain" in this situation results in "damage" (a broken egg).

Now repeat this experiment with a new Mr. Egghead, except this time fill up the container with water. The water represents the cerebrospinal fluid. Note that shaking the container does not cause the "brain damage" as before....the fluid has cushioned the brain from injury.

You could make this into a science fair project: test the hypothesis that "The cerebrospinal fluid and skull protect the brain from impact injury". Drop Mr. Egghead from a standard height (or heights) in different conditions: 1) with fluid in the container, 2) without fluid in the container, 3) with different fluids or materials (sand, rocks) or 4) in different shaped containers, etc. Make sure you keep notes!

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Slice and Dice - Learning Directions and Planes of Section

Grades 3-12

One way to learn the planes of sections and anatomical directions is to model the brain with fruit. That's right, fruit....the bigger the better...a melon (honey dew or cantaloupe) works nicely. Make eyes, a nose, ears and a mouth out of cork and stick them on the melon head with toothpicks. Or better yet, get a set of "Mr. Potato Head" body parts and stick them into the melon. The eyes, nose, ear and mouth give a sense of "which way is the front" to the round melon. Now make your sections with a large knife...a coronal (frontal) section first, then a horizontal section, then a sagittal section. See the "slice page" for the correct directions and planes.

Materials:

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"Neuroscience for Kids" activities are copyrighted by Eric H. Chudler, Ph.D.
of the University of Washington

Please send comments and suggestions to Dr. Chudler at chudler@u.washington.edu.

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