Deutsche Neurowissenschaften Olympiade in Frankfurt

Hand’s on brain research

von Fabian Rohmann, 29. März 2018, Healthcare

Neuroscience in the hands of teenage students! What is otherwise not found on the school curriculum was great fun for everyone involved who took part on March 17th. At the Deutsche Neurowissenschaften Olympiade at the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt, secondary school students tested how much they know about the brain. Winning took second place to discovery.

Human brains sliced, divided up into individual parts and manipulated with electric shocks. What sounds like a scenario from a crime story happened here in the name of science – and generated lots of enthusiasm among young students for the subject of neuroscience. The Max Planck Institute for Brain Research hosted the second German Neurosciences Olympiad (DNO) on March 17, 2018 – supported by the Gemeinnützige Hertie-Stiftung and the Interdisciplinary Center for Neuroscience Frankfurt. The 26 participants between 14 and 19 years old face a five-step challenge: To warm up, they take a written test with 15 multiple-choice questions. Next are 25 stations with brain models and microscope samples to answer questions about the structure and function of the objects. Then the tasks get a lot harder. Using a short medical history, a video of the symptoms, and some written examination results, the students attempt to make the correct diagnosis of the neurological disorder. Finally, two podium rounds follow, where a jury of experienced scientists await with progressively difficult questions.

A heart for the brain

“We want to make the tasks as realistic as possible, and give the students an impression of what actual research is like,” says LaShae Nicholson, Head of Marketing at DNO. She and her team of students, doctoral candidates, and scientists organize the competition on a voluntary basis, from planning and writing the material, to the actual event. As a doctoral student, she is investigating the interaction between nerve cells and the vascular system. “I’m excited that we can share our passion for neuroscience with teenage students,” says Nicholson.

In addition to the competition, a mini-expo offered entertaining activities between the tests. “We have also prepared activities for parents, teachers, and siblings who are accompanying the participants. This way, we can also get them interested in neurosciences, and give the topic more publicity,” explains Jonas Kaden, prospective biology teacher and member of the organizing team. In a dart game with a shifted field of vision, the students learn how quickly the brain can adapt to altered sensory impressions. Tablets of special African berries manipulate the receptors of the tongue, so that even a piece of lemon tastes sweet like sugar. And with a Spiker Box, which transmits electricity via electrodes, the activity of the muscles is measured – and transferred to another person’s muscle. Shock and awe-some fun.

Awaken interest beyond the curriculum

Neuroscience is certainly not a typical school subject. Pupils deal with math, English and natural science, and generally do not encounter brain research until they are at university. It was also the same with the organizers: “As a schoolgirl, I knew nothing about neuroscience.” explains Dilara Soydas, a medical student and also organizer of the DNO. “It was only during my studies that I discovered my fascination for this field of research – and I want to  bring this fascination to grade school and high school students.” Competition is not the primary aim at the Olympiade. The goals of the event go further, following the motto “Driving Connectivity” –generating interest in neurosciences, offering students a meeting place with like-minded people, and showing them how diverse the research field and their professional fields are. “After a medical degree, you can become more than just a doctor. You can quench your thirst for research in the field of neurology – that’s what we want to show the students,” says Soydas.

The scientists also benefit from the event. “To prepare our research for the children, we have to look at things from a whole new perspective. Through the students’ questions, we come across aspects we hadn’t considered before,” Nicholson reports. And neurological research needs new impulses. There are more than 1,000 brain diseases and disorders that cannot be cured yet. The fields of research are as diverse as the mysteries that still need to be solved.


Participants and organization-team of the DNO

Investment in the future

The event is part of the International Brain Bee Program, which is active in over 50 countries and organizes 150 competitions on six continents. The first round of the regional elimination was in Frankfurt, and took place simultaneously in Bonn and Berlin. The 15 best of each of the three events will meet for the national championships in Heidelberg on May 12, 2018. The winner will represent Germany at the International Brain Bee in July. The event will take place within the renowned Forum for Neuroscience of the FENS (Federation of European Neuroscience Societies), in which the finalist will also participate. In addition, the three first-place winners will get the opportunity for various internships at prestigious research institutions.

The conclusion of this year’s Deutsche Neurowissenschaften Olympiade is more than positive. Students – and parents – had a lot of fun at the Mini-Expo stands and got very involved the tests. The final podium round offered an exciting neck-and-neck duel that had the audience rooting for their favorites. Nicholson says, “During the event, many participants told us that there should be more such events. This shows that our work is absolutely worthwhile – and that makes us very proud.” And perhaps one participant will achieve the next breakthrough in neuroscience – because he or she discovered the fascination of brain research that day.


Want to test you knowledge of brains? Test yourself at our Mini Neurowissenschaften Olympiade:

Time for history

The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute was founded in Berlin in 1914, the forerunner of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research. The leading minds were Oskar and Cecile Vogt. Oskar was commissioned by the Soviet government in 1926 to examine the brain of Lenin, who died two years earlier – and thus to explore the traces of Lenin’s genius. Until 1930 Vogt travelled regularly to Moscow to personally supervise the investigations. In his final report he summed up that Lenin had been an “association athlete” with an above-average grasp. Many experts considered this result to be very far-fetched, but the fascination for the brains of important personalities continues to this day: Is the extraordinary intelligence of these people reflected in the brain structure? A famous example of this passion is Einstein’s brain. He died in 1955, but in November 2012 a scientific examination of his cerebrum was still carried out. But so far, no morphological study has provided a groundbreaking insight.

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