Science, fun of brain study unfolds at Duke

Dr. Len White holds a preserved human brain for Kai Stanford to see at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences Discovery Day, which took place in Durham on Sunday.
Dr. Len White holds a preserved human brain for Kai Stanford to see at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences Discovery Day, which took place in Durham on Sunday.

On Sunday, hundreds of people stepped underground to ponder the body’s most curious organ: the brain.

The Duke Institute for Brain Science invited the public into its new state-of-the art facility to hear about all the ways that knowing more about the brain will help solve the world’s most vexing problems.

The event ended a week of seminars and talks to celebrate Brain Awareness Week.

“Generally, people are surprised to hear we know as much as we do about the brain,” said Minna Ng, the institute’s education strategies and community partnerships. “On the flip side, we still don’t know a whole lot.”

Teams of students and faculty converged in classrooms and alcoves Sunday to tell visitors everything they had been learning, and how those lessons revolved around the brain. Each team brought together faculty and students from diverse majors to study complicated questions.

Among them: How can we figure out exactly when and how the brain is injured while playing sports? How have artists come to know and portray faces over time, and what does our brain register when studying art? What is actually happening when a mother smokes while pregnant?

“To answer the largest questions, we need to convene a whole academic force,” said Zab Johnson, co-director of the institute.

That’s the mission of the Institute, which started in 2007. Duke University recognized that it wasn’t just neuroscientists who needed to or were capable of studying the brain. And understanding the brain would unlock the answers to so many questions.

Until last year, the team operated in a tiny space in the heart of Duke’s west campus. Slowly, the institute’s team convinced the university that for them to draw the students and faculty they needed to convene an interdisciplinary program, it needed a space of its own.

The solution: gut and renovate an underground space that until two years ago housed a chiller system used to air condition many of the buildings along Research Drive.

“Even though water would puddle on the concrete and there was nothing but vast industrial equipment everywhere, we could see the potential immediately,” said Johnson.

The finished project is an open two-level underground space that has contemplated all that is good and right for the brain. The lights dim in just the right way. Rooms can be converted from a lecture hall to an activity room with some furniture rearrangement. It features standing work spaces and exposed ventilation piping that resembles a map of the brain. To reach it, visitors step into a glass elevator in the middle of a grassy knoll and descend.

Faculty use the space to teach classes and Institute staff host seminars and events that pull together faculty and students interested in tackling social issues that will rely, in part, in understanding what role the brain plays.

On Sunday, visitors got a chance to get intimate with the brain. Several brains were on display, and those who wanted to touch and hold it, got the chance.

Fatima Muhammad, a nursing student at Durham Tech Community College, had already been coming to appreciate the brain more this year because of a psychology class she was taking. She was mesmerized by her teacher’s lessons on all that the brain does for our bodies.

On Sunday, though, Muhammad, held a 10-year-old brain.

“It was awesome. To know what it does, then get to see it up close and personal? I have a new respect,” she said.