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Brain Awareness Week to stimulate dialogue

Kristen Durbin | Tuesday, March 16, 2010

After the much-needed mental relaxation of Spring Break, the Psychology Club is sponsoring the first annual Brain Awareness Week to get students more interested and involved in the field of neuroscience and how it applies to daily life.

Fifth-year student and Brain Awareness Week coordinator Bryce Chung said a growing number of students on campus are interested in neuroscience.

In response to this growing interest in the subject, juniors Kevin Mickey and Annette Ruth are founding Notre Dame’s first neuroscience club, the Society for Mind, Brain and Behavior.

The idea for Brain Awareness Week came from the Dana Foundation, an international organization that spreads knowledge and awareness of the arts, the brain and immunology research, Chung said. The week is the largest Dana Foundation event in Indiana.

Although the week is an extension of the Dana Foundation’s international mission, Chung stressed the importance of making neuroscience more accessible to the Notre Dame community as a whole.

“The mission of this week is to provide students with the opportunity to get their feet wet in neuroscience and explore what the field is all about,” Chung said. “We want to increase interest, introduce the field and make this week a pilot event for the future.”

In order to achieve this goal, Brain Awareness Week offers 12 different events over five days. Each day centers around one of four themes. Monday’s focus is the mind and Tuesday’s is the body, while Wednesday highlights the self and society and Thursday emphasizes constructive dialogue.

Chung said these themes highlight the cognitive, biological and sociological aspects of neuroscience.

Senior Lauren Schmitt coordinated Tuesday’s events around the theme, “Health and Medicine.”

“Tuesday is meant to extend beyond the normal functioning of the brain and go into the often forgotten peripheral nervous system as well as what happens when functions of the brain go awry, as in autism and schizophrenia,” Schmidt said.

The week’s events include lectures by professors from the Psychology, Sociology and Biology Departments, and by Dr. Robert Spinner of the Mayo Clinic. In addition, the film “A Beautiful Mind” will be shown  Tuesday at 8 p.m.

The week’s main event is Thursday’s forum entitled, “Are We Designed with God In Mind?”
“The forum will allow us to discuss where religion comes from and what’s in it for us,” Chung said. “It will also relate neuroscience with the God debate in terms of science versus faith, not just atheism versus theism.”

The culmination of Brain Awareness Week will be Saturday’s fundraiser, “Brainanza,” which offers performances by the Juggling Club, Troop ND and other campus performers.
“Through this event, we can look at how the brain processes the different types of activities presented,” Chung said.

In addition to spreading awareness and knowledge to students, Chung hopes the event will continue to make the University administration more aware of the growing student interest in neuroscience on campus.

Although Notre Dame does not currently have a department of neuroscience, the University has hired two new neuroscience professors, Dr. Jessica Payne and Michelle Wirth. A faculty neuroscience group also exists on campus.

“The closest thing we have to neuroscience is the psychology department,” Chung said. “Neuroscience is difficult because it’s inherently interdisciplinary and consumes a lot of resources.”

Although neuroscience is usually connected with biology and the hard sciences, Chung hopes to see the field at Notre Dame connected with philosophy and theology because of the strong ties those subjects have with campus life. He said he hopes Thursday’s forum will help foster the connections between those subjects.