Sheep brain dissection ‘gross, but it’s still cool’

By Jeff Hansel

Hands-on experience with brain surgery doesn’t come cheap, especially if the goal is to teach 260 kids about the brain’s structure and function.

Thanks to a federal grant, seventh-grade students at John Adams Middle School spent three days in a sort of in-school brain camp.

They learned the parts of the brain, tried out electrodes that help test brain waves and studied the nervous system, culminating in an hourlong dissection of sheep brains.


"This should give you an idea of what the brain should feel like," said Georgia Brier from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, who gave whirlwind sessions at John Adams this week.

"Remember, the dura mater is that sort of heavy covering on the outside," said Susan Carlsen, who co-teaches the class with Cindy Boese.

Boese is one of about 40 teachers who attended neuroscience workshops in the Twin Cities. After connections made at the workshops, the teachers invited Brier to visit John Adams.

She oversaw a variety of brain-related activities. Students stuck their fingers into water and saw which part of the brain was active in figuring out the temperature. They also got to hold a real human brain.

But the big hit was Thursday’s sheep brain dissection. No more diagrams or descriptions from teachers.

This was the real thing.

"If you guys can actually pick out structures that you’ve studied in the past few days, do so," Brier said as students donned rubber gloves and began their work. "Why does the white inner part of the brain feel hard?" Brier asked. Because it’s made up of nerve fibers called axons that send messages from the brain to the rest of the body.

In response to a student observation about a brain part, Brier said, "What does it do? Balance. Right. It’s the cerebellum."


Students were asked to make qualitative descriptions; describing that they saw, felt and smelled.

"Hey, what does yours look like?," asked Kadri Ploh.

A table away from him, Nathan Ekhoff held aloft for comparison the brain his team had dissected. Then came a question that stopped all activity.

"How do you get a headache?" asked Anrel Mujanovic.

Blood vessels, which have pain receptors, shrink, Brier said. That creates pain. After the cleanup, student Becca Boldt summed up a common response to the session.

"It’s gross," she said. "But it’s still cool."

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