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BRAIN GAIN: Local students celebrate the mind at St. Lawrence Brain Blast

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CANTON — Brains were what the ravenous horde descending on the Johnson Hall of Science desired — well, brains and candy, anyway.

Scores of school-age youngsters scattered through nearly 20 exhibits Friday afternoon to take in the fifth annual Brain Blast at St. Lawrence University.

The exhibits, staffed by St. Lawrence University faculty and students, vividly illustrated the regions and functions of the brain and highlighted the wide variety of neuroscience research being conducted at St. Lawrence.

A natural starting point was a coloring exercise that labeled the hemispheres and lobes of the brain. Undergraduate student Emilie Wetzel of Rochester helped children identify the parts.

“This is to get children acquainted with the parts/sections of the brain and acquainted with brain functions,” she said, naming the four lobes — frontal, occipital, parietal and temporal.

The goals of Brain Blast are to increase public awareness of the benefits and progress of brain research and to inspire and excite the neuroscientists of tomorrow. The event is sponsored by St. Lawrence’s neuroscience program and its biology and psychology honors societies.

As students moved through the exhibits, more in-depth information about the parts of the brain were revealed. For example, at an exhibit about the parietal lobe, students were asked to find and identify objects with their eyes closed, an example of its function in spacial recognition and navigation.

“We come every year, the kids really like all the little booths,” said Tom A. Langen, Clarkson professor of biology and psychology. “My kids span from 11 to 6 years old, and there’s something for each of them.”

Nearby, Serge V. Onyper, St. Lawrence assistant professor of psychology, showed off Oscar the rat. The rodent was taught to push a button to receive a sugar pellet in a remade experiment.

“It’s about the capacity of organisms to learn based on the consequences of learning,” he said. “If you make him hungry, he’s more motivated to learn — he really likes the sugar pellets. If you think about addiction, people try a drug once or twice and they like the effect, they come back again.”

Each year, the university’s science faculty members organize the free event in celebration of Brain Awareness Week.

Nicole Anders of Schroon Lake explained the connection between smell and memory in the frontal lobe. The key to the connection is in the olfactory bulb, which extends into regions of the brain responsible for emotional and long-term memory.

“That is why smells elicit such strong memories,” Ms. Anders, a biology senior and three-year veteran of the Brain Blast, said.

Students at the exhibit were exposed to different common — but strong — smells and asked to recall associated memories and feelings.

“I think we’re collaborating with more groups this year,” Ms. Anders said. “We definitely have more tables.”

In a side room, children donned latex gloves and manipulated cow brains and eyes. The sterile smell of preservatives permeated the air as Martha Chew Sánchez and her daughter slid their fingers through the goopy fluid that fills a cow’s eyeball.

“It is a unique opportunity to have a first-hand approach with the regions of the brain,” said Ms. Chew Sánchez, a St. Lawrence global studies professor. “I don’t think my daughter will have many opportunities like this.”

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