Virtual Brain Week will help schoolkids, home-bound attendees get out of their heads

This year’s cerebral celebration will bring a packed roster of researchers from Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science and beyond into classrooms and homes to expand knowledge about the brain.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Kids across Rhode Island are familiar with the signs that spring is on its way — melting snow, longer days and plastic models of brains popping up in classrooms. The latter is a hallmark of Brain Week R.I., a series of school visits, fairs, presentations, performances and events held each March to make brain science fun, educational and accessible for everyone.

In light of the pandemic, this year’s events will be entirely virtual, which means that to a degree they’ll be even more accessible than usual. School visits will take place via Google Classroom and Zoom, and all-ages events will stream online from March 15 to 19. Participants need only a screen and an internet connection to tune into a packed agenda that includes lunchtime lectures, a mindfulness workshop and a trio of neuroscience-inspired plays that showcase the findings of Brown faculty and student researchers.

While listening online won’t offer the same sensory impact as trying on virtual reality goggles or handling a preserved human brain, the format does open up events to those who might not have been able to attend in person, says Diane Lipscombe, director of Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science, which sponsors Brain Week. The ability to attend an in-person event could be challenging due to anything from geography to mobility challenges to lack of childcare.

“We have to look at this as an opportunity,” Lipscombe said. “With Zoom and other platforms, we can bring brain science directly to people, in their homes.”

Last year, COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the entire festival after just a few school visits. For 2021, Brain Week’s organizers couldn’t bear the thought of another mind-less March, so they devised a creative virtual plan.

Instead of sending undergraduate and graduate students into schools, they built a library of lesson plans for DIY brain science experiments and offered virtual "show-and-tell" sessions with volunteers. Some of the lessons are structured for use in classrooms, while others can be done at home on remote-learning days, says Torrey Truszkowski, a Brain Week executive committee member who earned a Brown Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2018. Any teacher in the state can sign up for a virtual visit, and the learning materials are available for teachers and students everywhere, Truszkowski said.

Adults might be interested in a lunchtime talk that blends science and storytelling, with guest appearances by brain researchers from Brown, the University of Rhode Island and other universities, to explore topics including migraines, sleep, memory and decision-making; or a panel discussion about how mindfulness can help with COVID-induced stress and trauma, hosted by experts from the Warren Alpert Medical School.

One of the most experimental aspects of the week will be a trio of plays inspired by brain science. Neuroscientists were paired with local playwrights to create 10-minute theatrical works based on new research, to be performed by local actors. The plays will premiere on Zoom, followed by Q&As with the researchers and artists. 

This type of long-distance, borderless sharing of ideas goes well beyond Brain Week, Lipscombe points out.

“On a broader scale, we in the scientific community have been connecting very closely with our colleagues around the world during this time, and have been sharing ideas in virtual seminars attended by people on different continents,” she said. “The communication of knowledge has, in an odd way, been facilitated by the pandemic lockdown, as we all turn to the internet to connect.”

All events are free and open to the public, with advance registration required. A full schedule of Brain Week R.I. events is available via the web and a few highlights featuring Brown students and faculty are included here:

Brain Talk: A Lunchtime Series

Monday to Wednesday, March 15-17, 12 noon daily

Brown speakers include:

Mary Carskadon, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior

Athene Lee, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior

Judson Brewer, Associate Professor of Psychiatry; Director of Research and Innovation at Brown’s Mindfulness Center

Roman Feiman, Assistant Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences

Oriel FeldmanHall, Alfred Manning Assistant Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences

Brainy Acts: A Night of (Virtual) Theater
Brain Week RI
The play "Agrippina di Mineo Plays The Who on Her Piano," by Darcie Dennigan, is inspired by the work of Brown researcher Michael Frank. In this shot, actor Orlando Hernandez plays Onda the cat, helping to demonstrate the movement of dopamine waves in the brain. 

Thursday, March 18, 7:30 pm

Two of the three plays are inspired by work by Brown researchers:

Michael Frank, Edgar L. Marston Professor of Psychology; Director of the Center for Computational Brain Science

Judy Shih-Hwa Liu, Sidney A. Fox and Dorothea Doctors Fox Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Science; Associate Professor of Neurology; Associate Professor of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry

Mindfulness in Practice

Friday, March 19, 4 pm 

Brown speakers include:

Benjamin D. Greenberg, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior (co-host)

Stephen T. Mernoff, Associate Professor of Neurology (co-host)

Erica Eaton, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior; Assistant Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences

Stephanie Jones, Associate Professor of Neuroscience