Brain Bee story 2008

Students Match Wits in Brain Competition

by Ben Mauk

February 11, 2008

“Name the source of the input that enters the superchiasmatic nucleus and can reset the circadian clock.”

The correct answer to that question—the eyes—was worth $250 to Elena Perry, 16, a sophomore at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md. With her win in the Washington, D.C.–area Brain Bee, Perry advances to the national Brain Bee competition, to be held March 14 and 15.

Twenty students from 12 high schools in Maryland and the District of Columbia participated in the local Brain Bee. The bee heralds the coming of Brain Awareness Week, an international campaign to increase public awareness about the progress and benefits of brain research.

The 9th- to 12th-grade students had spent months studying “Brain Facts,” a 52-page primer published by the Society for Neuroscience, before they arrived at the Dana Center Feb. 6 for the main event. ("Brain Facts" PDF, 3mb)

Grace Chang of Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Md., took home the $150 second-place prize.

Perry maintained a look of steady concentration throughout the tournament, not smiling even when she was announced the winner. Afterward, though, her mood lightened.

“This was pretty fun,” she said.

Perry did not prepare for the quiz at school, but rather studied at home with help from her mother. “I started studying probably December 1, I think,” she said.

Questions covered such topics as brain anatomy, cellular function, disease, imaging technologies, behavior and memory. Walker asked five questions per round. Students then wrote their answers on large cards and held them up before the scorekeepers and audience. The competitors had to answer a predetermined number of questions correctly in order to move on to the next round.

The students, all of whom advanced past the not-at-all-trivial first round, drew enthusiastic applause from teachers, parents and other spectators, many of whom afterward lauded the students’ memories and understanding of neuroscience concepts.

Nevertheless, as the rounds intensified, fewer remained. Round six knocked out all but Perry and Chang, which created a problem: how to award the $100 third-place prize?

After a hasty meeting, Walker and event organizer Karen Graham of the Dana Foundation and Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives decided on an impromptu “sudden death” elimination round for third place. The room was rapt.

Walker needed to ask only one question of those who had just been eliminated: “Huntington’s disease is characterized by the depletion of what neurotransmitter?”

Only Michael Hsu of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., correctly answered the question for third place: “GABA,” he wrote on his oversized index card.

All students received bags filled with resources about the brain. Those eliminated sat hushed in the audience to watch the final round between two brain behemoths.

Walker asked a series of questions until one of the contestants answered three incorrectly. The question on the superchiasmatic nucleus ended the competition when Chang wrote the unacceptable answer “light.”

The National Brain Bee will be held at the University of Maryland at Baltimore and the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. There, Perry will compete with other local winners for cash prizes and a trip to the International Brain Bee, May 25-26 in Montreal.

The 2008 Washington D.C. Brain Bee Competition was presented by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences, and NRTA: AARP’s Educator Community and the Society for Neuroscience. This year’s Brain Awareness Week will take place March 10-16.