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May 5, 2023

By Holly Smith

Dr. Nicholas G. Hatsopoulos shows off a rhesus monkey brain and a human brain to students.

In 2013, the Research Computing Center (RCC) Director, Dr. H. Birali Runesha and the late Professor John Cacioppo of the Department of Psychology held their first Brain Awareness Day event. Their shared joy of teaching the next generation lead to this collaboration. The event was created to provide an opportunity for local high school students to learn more about the brain, high-end computing, and the chance to experience something they otherwise may not, like holding a real brain. 

Can knowledge of the brain and neurotransmitters solve the zombie apocalypse? This is one of the questions that approximately 40 high school students from the University of Chicago Charter School were confronted with on this year’s Brain Awareness Day. The event began with a welcome from Dr. Runesha who spoke on the importance of science and learning. He even divulged that at their age he could not have imagined his career trajectory and had, in fact, hoped to be a soccer player.

While the high school students participated in a variety of activities, the highlight of the day was real brains. Professor Nicholas G. Hatsopoulos, department of organismal biology and anatomy, gathered the students around three specimens: a mouse brain, a rhesus monkey brain, and a human brain. Gloved and masked, students were able to hold the brains and ask Hatsopoulos questions they had about brains as well as the difference between the brains of different species. This hands-on experience clearly inspired the students: “What I enjoyed most was that some students expressed that they wanted to study neuroscience more in the future,” shared Hatsopoulos.

Students learned about the differences between a healthy brain and a zombie brain. Dr. Muhammad Aji Muharrom and Himanshi Yadav of the RCC explained a bit about a set of neurotransmitters (glutamate, GABA, dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) that could help correct some of these issues zombies may experience, such as insatiable, angry, unsteady, shambling, and unable to plan complex actions. Students worked together to create a treatment plan for a zombified individual.

Using the RCC’s new Voxon Volumetric Display, students could manipulate and see inside of a holographic, life-sized brain. This allowed them to both learn about the brain and the 3D technology of the Voxon. RCC computational scientist Dr. J.D. Laurence-Chasen, who has a background in neuroscience, explained what the students were seeing and guided them in their exploration.


RCC staff members Ross Hyman and Kim Grasch demonstrate signals coming from the brain to the arm.

There was also a demonstration that showed students that when the brain tells the hand to make a fist it does so by creating a voltage difference along the nerve. The human-to-human interface device was attached to RCC’s Dr. Ross Hyman and Kimberly Grasch. By using the device, Hyman could get Grasch’s hand to flex with no movement by her. The voltage difference was picked up by electrodes on Hyman’s and Grasch’s arms and the human-to-human interface device then amplified the difference and displayed it on the computer screen for the students to see.

The RCC looks forward to hosting Brain Awareness Day again next year.