Students test their brain knowledge in national bee

What does the human brain weigh? What's a pig-head structure? These students know.

The human brain has billions of neurons and Victoria Suntich's were firing during the weekend's National Brain Bee, a neuroscience competition for students across the country.

The 17-year-old from St. Mary's County pinpointed arteries and nerves and tried to recall the symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome.

"There's a thing called a developing pig-head structure," the Leonardtown High School senior said. "I could go on."

Fifty-six teens from 33 cities arrived in Baltimore to test their knowlege for first place, $1,500 and a chance to attend the world championship in June in Copenhagen, Denmark.

That distinction went to Karina Bao, a junior at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, who could explain the role of the suprachiasmatic nucleus, invaluable to any teenager: sleep regulator.

The competition is the brainchild of Dr. Norbert Myslinski, a neuroscience professor at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. The idea was hatched in his basement in the late 1990s as a way to excite teenagers about the dense field of neuroscience.

There remain more than 1,000 known neurological and psychological disorders without a cure, he said. He hopes participants will be inspired to someday find the answers.

About 30,000 teenagers compete each year in cities around the country for entrance to the national championship, held at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Past winners have gone on to compete in places like Cape Town, South Africa.

"This is not the end of your neuroscience career, it's just the beginning," Myslinski said at an awards ceremony Sunday.

The competition began Friday with students identifying pinned structures on cadaver brains, examining MRI scans and diagnosing actors portraying patients with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, and multiple sclerosis.

Rasheeda Saka, a 17-year-old from Randallstown, found the MRI scans most challenging to decipher.

She had an easier time labeling the brain diagrams, the same drawings as on her bedroom walls. Saka hopes to earn financial aid, attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and pursue medicine.

The competition operates as a nonprofit funded by hospitals, universities and medical schools around the world. The U.S. winner receives some money to help afford the trip overseas, also the snazzy, white "Brain Bee" lab coat, which the teens may or may not wear to school. Myslinski encourages it.

Also, the winner is presented a championship cup to be displayed at their high school.

"Not in your basement," Myslinski said, and the students laughed. "Pour some soda in there and drink it."

Myslinski maintains a light touch through it all, even pausing for a competition of neuroscience T-shirts, including the one: "This is your brain on doughnuts."

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