Norbert Myslinski

Norbert Myslinski, associate professor of neurosciences at the University of Maryland, is founder of the U.S. National Brain Bee. (Carl Owenby / March 4, 2012)

Forty-four of the nation's brightest high school students are in Baltimore to test their brains about the brain — in a two-day neuroscience competition that started Sunday morning with a visit to the cadaver laboratory in the University of Maryland School of Medicine and, for many of the teenagers, their first encounter with gray matter.

Some had observed sheep's brains and rabbit brains in biology class, and all had studied plastic brain models and atlases as they prepared for the fifth annual U.S. National Brain Bee, founded by a University of Maryland neuroscientist. But, in the first round of competition, students had one minute to visit each of 25 lab stations featuring a real brain, smelling faintly of formaldehyde and opened to reveal a section of the neuroanatomy. The students had to corrrectly identify an area marked with a pin.

"Identify this major sulcus," was the test at station 19. "Identify this area of the cortex associated with Broadmann area 22," was the challenge at station 24. And when they each arrived at station 17, students were asked to "identify this area connected to the pituitary gland."

"That was pretty hard," said Avvinash Radakrishnan, a junior from Nashua High School South in New Hampshire. "I got a good amount of them, but some of the areas we had to identify were a little ambiguous."

"Pretty cool," said Kevin Byun, a senior at Maclay High School in Tallahassee, Fla., and the third student from his school to make it to the National Brain Bee. "I've seen plasticized brains but not the real thing."

Alice Zhang, a junior from the Indiana Academy for Science and Math in Muncie, and Katherine Silva, from the Greater Hartford Academy of Math and Science in Connecticut, both found the neuroanatomy test tough but fascinating, well beyond their experiences in labs back home.

"Building Better Brains to Fight Brain Disorders" is the motto of the competition, founded by University of Maryland neuroscientist Norbert Myslinski, the organizer of the competition. The idea is to inspire teenagers to careers in neuroscience and the treatment of the hundreds of disorders related to the brain. The national competition is part of an international brain bee that Myslinski created 14 years ago. Winners are selected through 150 regional competitions on six continents, and national winners go to the international brain bee in summer. This year it's in Cape Town, South Africa.

Myslinski says about 30,000 students compete in the bee each year. The two Maryland regional winners vying for the trip to South Africa are Andrew Wang, of Mount Hebron High School in Howard County, and Kathleen Carino, of Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore County.

The second part of Sunday's competition, held at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, included patient diagnosis — the high school students had to figure out what was ailing each of 11 "patients" played convincingly by nurse practitioner candidates.

"I have numbness in my extremities, and I'm really tired all the time, and when I take a shower I can't always tell if the water is warm," Chris Roberson told Nathanael Ji, from Little Rock, Ark., who correctly diagnosed multiple sclerosis.

"I can't control my movements, and I blurt out words that are offensive," Emily Kammann, feigning a tic, told Rajeev Parvathala, from Glendale, Ariz. Rajeev had no problem checking off Tourette syndrome as a diagnosis.

The National Brain Bee continues Monday with lectures and panel discussions at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com