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Neuroscience, Public engagement, The immune system

Multiple Sclerosis – Action and Reaction

Brain Diaries is an exhibition and series of events organised by the Oxford Museum of Natural History in partnership with Oxford Neuroscience. The aim is to show the public how the latest neuroscientific research is transforming what we understand about our brain – from birth to the end of life.  In order to celebrate the opening of this event, the Museum hosted a ‘Super Science Saturday’ on Saturday 11 March.  One of the labs taking part was the Lars Fugger lab, who research Multiple Sclerosis. Here, Jessica Davies, a postdoctoral researcher in the Fugger lab, reports how they got on presenting their exhibit to those that attended Super Science Saturday.

“Hey you! Do you want to colour in a neuron?” That was our way of enticing children to come and hear about what happens to the brain in Multiple Sclerosis (MS). And if that didn’t work we had some cuddly immune cells and a big colourful poster of the brain lit up with fairy lights!

Blog - poster 1Brain Diaries is a new exhibition organised by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which runs until January 2018.  In order to celebrate the opening of this exhibit, the Museum organised a special ‘Super Science Saturday’ event – a popular family friendly science day. We were presenting an exhibit entitled ‘Multiple Sclerosis – action and reaction’ and our main aim was to teach children and young teenagers a bit about MS in a fun and accessible way.

Multiple Sclerosis occurs when the immune system attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, leading to symptoms such as difficulties with movement and balance, weakness, fatigue and vision problems. The range of symptoms an individual experiences depend on what part of the brain and spinal cord is damaged by the attack. In order to explain how these damaging immune cells can lead to the symptoms of MS, we encouraged children to colour in and name a neuron and then attach it to our poster of the brain. Depending on what area of the brain they put it on, we would then tell them what body processes that part of the brain is involved in and what symptoms a person with MS would experience if their immune cells attacked that area.

Children were constantly gathered around the colouring table with their parents and within only an hour our poster was already half covered with multi-coloured neurons. We found that this was a brilliant opportunity to tell young children some simple science about how their brain works, while discussing MS and our research in greater detail with the adults. Another section of our exhibit, targeted at older children, included information sheets and a short quiz about how to use a microscope to study brain sections and investigate what happens in an MS-affected brain.

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Our brain, covered in neurons

As well as revealing one way that scientists can investigate and understand this disease, this allowed visitors to see what actually happens to the brain when immune cells attack it and how symptoms arise. The most challenging part of our stand was to take apart and piece back together a miniature brain model – an activity we included to explain to older children and adults about the brain in general (for those who found the idea of colouring in a neuron less appealing!). A few people were up for the challenge, and it gave us an opportunity to interact with interested members of the public about the function of different brain structures – the lobes, the cerebellum, brain stem, corpus callosum…For me the challenge was to think back to my undergraduate modules in neuroscience!

By the end of the afternoon our poster was overflowing with neurons (they were no longer confined to the brain…). We had talked to hundreds of people of all ages, including a small group of lovely young women with MS, who came all the way from London to visit our exhibit – we felt truly privileged! We handed out many word searches and quizzes on MS for children to take home and hundreds of stickers showing an MRI image of the brain with a lesion (part of the brain affected by MS). After all, it’s always nice to have a scientific souvenir to remember the event, and maybe even inspire a bit of homework!

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We all felt that the day was a huge success and that we definitely succeeded in showing young children that learning about the brain can be fascinating and enjoyable!

Jess worked with Calli Dendrou, Hayley Evans, Mayida Azhar and Anna-Lena Schaupp from the Fugger Lab to develop and deliver Action and Reaction. Well done to all!

This blog was edited by Emma Mee Hayes and Emma O’Brien.

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