Exhibit teaches children to get smart about the brain

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

NEW YORK -- The brain is an organ just like a lung or a kidney. Well, maybe the brain's a little bit smarter since it's the boss of all those other body parts, but it still grows throughout childhood and degenerates when it gets older.

It also gets sick.

But much like an asthmatic lung can be controlled with an inhaler, there are successful medical treatments for many brain ailments, says Dr. John Gillespie, a psychiatrist and medical director of Pfizer.

Pfizer is the corporate sponsor of "Brain: The World Inside Your Head," an exhibit on display at the New York Hall of Science. It then moves to Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Mo., St. Paul, Minn., and Boston. It will be at the St. Louis Science Center from Jan. 31, 2004 through May 2004.

The exhibit uses video games, optical illusions and hands-on features to explore the brain's many functions in a way that children will find interesting and understandable.

Gillespie says that much of the content is devoted to brain-based conditions in an effort to encourage children to speak freely about their mental health, and for both parents and youngsters to get over the stigma attached to mental illness.

These illnesses, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention-deficit disorder, are real medical conditions, not "made-up things," and they can't be cured overnight, he explains.

"You wouldn't say to a child with asthma, 'Get over it.' And you shouldn't say that to a child with post-traumatic stress disorder. That's a condition that needs to be treated," Gillespie says.

According to Gillespie, the World Health Organization predicts that by 2020 major depression will be the second-largest burden of major illness behind heart disease.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is as common as diabetes, with about 8 percent of the U.S. population suffering from the illness at least one time in their lives, he adds.

With many mental illnesses, diagnosis -- not treatment -- is the hardest part. People often fail to recognize symptoms and even when they suspect something is wrong, they often try to hide them.

Also, Gillespie says, there are few definitive diagnostic tests for mental illnesses, leaving doctors often relying on those rarely discussed symptoms along with family histories.

Children, in particular, might be unaware of symptoms. Parents need to be attuned to signs that might signal a problem, such as withdrawal, a decline in school work and disruptive relationships.

However, some brain illnesses, particularly neurological disorders, are accompanied by physical pain, and one activity in the exhibit encourages children to be brain surgeons for a day: They use a gamma knife simulator to excise a tumor. The tumor is pinpointed and it's up to the "doctors," weighing risks and benefits on the spot, to zap it.

There is no sugarcoating added to "Brain: The World Inside Your Head," but the intricacies are presented in a way that aims to educate but not overwhelm youngsters.

A feature called Yesterday puts exhibit visitors in front of a machine that mimics the sights, sounds and smells of popcorn, grass and a campfire. It demonstrates that a whiff of fake butter can take the brain to a specific time, place and event in one's memory bank.

The video game Nightshift shows how sleep recharges "the human battery," and a "lighting show" imitates the electrical activity of the central nervous system in an enlarged brain.

Some of the insight gleaned from the exhibit might even surprise adults, such as learning that the brain is the most complex structure in the known universe and it contains as many neurons as there are stars in the Milky Way.

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