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Nettelhorst Brain Fair Shows How Powerful the Mind Can Be

By Serena Dai | February 22, 2013 6:53am

LAKEVIEW — Did you know your brain is so powerful, it can move an inanimate object?

It's not science fiction. Electrical signals the brain sends to muscles can actually be used to move a plastic Lego robot. With the right equipment, you can hook up sensors to your skin and connect to a Lego Mindstorm, and a clench of your fist will send the robot flying.

You — or your 7-year-old — can do just that at The Nettelhorst School's third annual Brain Fair, a program run by Northwestern University neuroscience graduate students.

"You're piloting the robot with signals from your muscles," said Jessica Wilson, one of the event's organizers and a doctoral student at Northwestern. "It's a way to show how we can control robots with the power of our brains."

Registration for the Brain Fair, to be held in two sessions on March 16, will be open to the public on Nettelhorst's website starting Friday. It's the first year fair organizers are actively trying to get more Chicago Public Schools students outside of Nettelhorst to come.

The 17 activities at the fair seek to raise awareness about the brain and neuroscience research, timed with The Dana Foundation's Brain Awareness Week, said Wilson and co-organizer Shoai Hattori. 

The Lego Mindstorm activity, one of the most popular ones, shows how the brain could interact with machines and the potential for prosthetics — like the possibility of the disabled controlling electric wheelchairs with their minds, Wilson said.

At another booth, students can see how electrical signals control muscles with amputated cockroach legs. Grad students cut off the leg of a cockroach, attach it to a small machine called the SpikerBox, and listen as it emits the bzz bzz electrical sound of nerve signals coming from the leg. And when an iPod is connected to the SpikerBox, electrical signals from music can make the leg twitch like it's "Stayin' Alive."

(The cockroaches, for what it's worth, are put it in ice water before amputation to minimize pain.)

"We're not going to lecture," Hattori said. "It's hands-on, with a little bit of explanation for everything. Once they go home, they'll talk about it with their parents."

While the main goal is to have students and parents leave with a better of idea of how the brain works, it also exposes students to potential career paths, said Holly Quasny, a parent whose daughter is in sixth grade at Nettelhorst.

"The kids should be thinking about this is an area they’d want to pursue. 'Maybe I want to be a brain surgeon!'" she said. "It's a way to expose them to another aspect of science and the health care arena."

Fair registration, which has already been opened up to students at Nettelhorst and a few other area schools, is capped at 700 people. The hope is that in the future, even more schools will work with Northwestern to start fairs for Brain Awareness Week.

"Kids really walk away with an idea of how the brain works," Quasny said.