*Disclosure: I currently volunteer at The Franklin Institute as a Science Presenter.*
As an enthusiast of informal, interactive education, but especially as a graduate student of neuroscience, I was thrilled to learn of the development of the Franklin Institute’s new neuroscience exhibit – appropriately titled “Your Brain” – and eagerly anticipated its unveiling. I’d never seen my own discipline showcased in a museum setting; biology exhibits at comparable institutions either tend toward natural history and ecology, or toward slightly better-understood disciplines, such as physiology (e.g., the Franklin Institute’s own Giant Heart and associated exhibit) or genetics, the fundamental underpinnings of which are often taught in advanced high school biology classes. Even when the American Museum of Natural History, one of the nation’s foremost scientific and educational institutions, unveiled a brain science exhibit four years ago, that exhibit was never developed as a permanent fixture in the museum.
To the lay public, I imagine that these subfields of biology may seem more familiar and accessible than the workings of the mind. And in truth, while other biological disciplines (biochemistry, for example) tend to be defined by a set of techniques which are then applied to a variety of questions, the field of neuroscience remains a phenomenally inclusive technical umbrella, all work applied toward one overarching question: how does the nervous system actually work? Neuroscience runs the gamut from computer-based, theoretical modeling that rarely opens the door of a laboratory, to animal behavior studies and tests of drug efficacy, to the intricacies of protein folding in experimental settings largely divorced from their cellular origins. It is a vast field, and one full of moving targets. I was curious to see how the exhibit’s developers planned to manage both the incredible scope of brain research, as well as the fact that any specific portion of the exhibit quickly might become outdated.
I needn’t have worried. The team at the Franklin Institute, led by Chief Bioscientist Dr. Jayatri Das, has put together a visually stunning and intellectually thrilling exhibition. “Your Brain” has been lauded by various local and national news organizations, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and others. The exhibit has been described as “an entertaining hands-on, eyes-on, full-body experience” and “one of [the] best” permanent exhibits at the Franklin Institute, despite being its most recent addition.
I expected to be delighted by the exhibit as an aspiring science communicator; the study of the brain and its workings can be mystifying, and I was enthusiastic about the mere prospect of seeing neuroscience explored in an interactive, educational setting. I did not expect that I’d be similarly delighted as a neuroscientist – after all, shouldn’t I know most of this stuff already? Shouldn’t much of it be review? But in fact, I found plenty of material to excite me. For the critical and inquiring eye – even for the experienced scientist – “Your Brain” has greater depths to be discovered, greater levels of understanding to be revealed, than might be immediately apparent to a lay audience. Numerous others have written about the quality of the exhibit itself and given plentiful recommendations as to which areas to explore; let me briefly cheer on the awesome science! Perhaps you’ll find the exhibit even more interesting on your next visit.
Neuroscience, wall-to-wall. The design team clearly put a lot of thought into the look of the exhibit, and while that work is showcased most impressively in the illusion-filled “Street Scene” area, the designers even include a quiet nod to neuroscience in the choice of carpeting. Did you happen to look down? If you did, you might have seen a carpet pattern that mimics a vast neuronal network. There are visual spectacles aplenty in “Your Brain,” but also plenty of clever Easter eggs like this one for the observant visitor.
Attention to detail. One of the most kid-friendly displays in “Your Brain” is the Model Neuron, which demonstrates how this particular type of brain cell “fires” (i.e., activates and sends a signal). In the model, one spins a dial for some length of time to activate the model. Eventually, a barrage of ping-pong balls fires out the end of the tube – but only if one has built up enough “electrical signal!” If not, all the balls stay in the tube. This “all-or-none” behavior is exactly what one sees in a neuronal “action potential” – the basic electrical currency of thought. An action potential causes the release of chemical messengers, known as “neurotransmitters,” that induce a variety of electrical or chemical responses in other cells. An action potential only occurs, however, when there is a very particular voltage across the cellular membrane of the originating cell; otherwise, the cell won’t fire. It’s analogous to the fact that spinning the dial only releases the ping-pong balls when the one has spun the dial continuously, and for sufficient time. The words “all-or-none” are never used in the display, but it’s still delightfully accurate in spirit. Similarly conscientious interactive elements may be found throughout the exhibit.
A squid giant axon. No, it’s not the axon of a giant squid; it’s the giant axon of a squid! The “axon” is that portion of a neuron that transmits action potentials along the length of the cell, like a long, well-insulated wire. The release of neurotransmitters in response to these signals helps translate the message to nearby cellular neighbors. At a diameter of about 0.5mm – visible to the naked eye and about 5 times larger than the width of the average human hair – this axon is, quite literally, giant by comparison to others of its kind, measuring 25 times larger than even the largest mammalian axon. The large diameter of the squid axon makes it relatively easy to manipulate with a tiny glass electrode, permitting Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley to record an action potential for the first time – a watershed moment in the history of neuroscience. They, along with Sir John Eccles, shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their remarkable findings. I hung around and admired the axon for a number of minutes. It felt as though I’d run into a celebrity. Sadly, preserved squid axons are incapable of distributing autographs.
I KNOW THOSE GUYS! Upon entering the exhibit’s first large room, one sees a multipanel display of colorful, rotating images; each image highlights different features of the brain at the cellular level, and is derived from real experiments – many of which took place in the laboratories of researchers local to Philadelphia. I got a particular kick out of the fact that I actually recognized a number of the images from journal articles or presentations and, in certain cases, recognized (and knew personally) some of the images’ contributors; it made for a fun sort of “I Spy” game (although I imagine I was the only one playing). Certain of these images may be more familiar, however – including a “Brainbow mouse,” which made it as far as the pages of The New York Times.
Brainnnnnnns. There are so many. Previously, the Franklin Institute’s much smaller “Brain Bar” – a little cart that used to be tucked away at the back of the Giant Heart exhibit – displayed a number of plastinated brains, preserved using a method that replaces the water and fat in a normal brain with plastics (it’s the same method used in the traveling “Body Worlds” exhibit). These specimens included a horse and cow brain, as well as two generously donated human hemispheres – one from a human in good health, and one from a human with Alzheimer’s disease. Even then, I found this cart amazing. I’d dissected healthy human brains in a graduate neuroanatomy class, but had never seen a pathological brain up-close. The new and improved Brain Bar in this exhibit goes above and beyond the previous offerings, and includes two new pathological human brain samples – one with a cerebellar tumor, one with demyelination (i.e., the axons have lost their myelin “insulation”) – and one perfectly normal human cerebellum. The writer for The New York Times‘ review referred to the plastinate components of the exhibition as perhaps “a bit staid,” even a little boring, for the modern audience. I strongly disagree. These are real brains, donated by real people. They are amazing, they are exceedingly rare, and they are worth taking the time to visit.
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The praise “Your Brain” has received is unquestionably well-deserved. The exhibit functions well on several levels, with interactive portions (for example, the “Neural Climb”, which features in much of the promotional material for the exhibit) that promise to delight both children and slightly more grown-up children (into which category I happily place myself). There are levers to press, handles to pull, extremes of temperature between which to distinguish, and a host of fun and visually engaging activities, some of which can (and in some cases, must) be performed with a partner. The exhibit also includes surprisingly high-level but understandable explanations of complex neurological systems and technologies. In one particular instance, I was pleased to see an accurate representation of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which is, from a neuroscientist’s perspective, notoriously poorly reported upon by most media outlets (and, frankly, by a not-inconsiderable number of scientists).
I agree with some of the other writers that the section on neuroethics feels a little hurried. On the other hand, it is understandably difficult to reflect on the use of fMRI scans as courtroom evidence, or on cognitive enhancement, or even on the nature of being human, when just next door is a vast, noisy neural playground. But perhaps that isn’t that point; perhaps the close of the exhibit is meant to simply spark our imaginations, to let us know that these ethical questions exist, and to task us with considering them as we go forward. After all, such philosophy is often best addressed in quiet conversations, in personal research, and in self-reflection; in deliberation among strangers on one-way bus trips, and in science fiction that pokes at the boundaries of what we imagine is, or should be, possible.
Go forth and think – and then, be astounded that you can.
“Your Brain” is the latest addition to the Franklin Institute’s permanent offerings. It is housed on the second floor of the brand-new Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pavilion and opened in June 2014.