The irony was rich, if a tad terrifying for the 14-year-old with the nervously bouncing right knee.
Here was little Debolina Kanjilal, who had acquitted herself impressively in round after round in a contest about the many functions and malfunctions of the brain.
She’d aced one question after the next about neurotrophins, magnetic resonance imaging and selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.
Suddenly she sat, microphone in hand, and her own brain couldn’t process an answer. It was right there, on the tip of her temporal lobe.
If only the right neural pathways would be activated, she might be able to conjure up some non-genetic factors that contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
The best Debolina could come up with was “environment.”
A judge asked, could you be more specific?
So when 16-year-old high school junior Tim Schaefer identified the two types of epileptic seizures — partial and general (but you knew that) — the championship of Saturday morning’s Kansas City Brain Bee was his.
A contest that began five years ago with just four contestants grew this year to more than two dozen, with the winner getting a chance to move on to a national competition in Baltimore in the spring.
Tim, a student at St. Thomas Aquinas High School and the Blue Valley School District’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies, had been cramming his noodle with brain data since December. Fifteen minutes every night going over flash cards and two hours of drilling every weekend.
Even with all that, he was relieved that the questions about Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease had fallen to competitors rather than to him. It’s just too easy for a non-neuroscientist to mix them up.
The annual contest is put on by the Kansas City chapter of the Society for Neuroscience in an effort to promote public understanding of the discipline.
It began Saturday morning at the University of Kansas Medical Center, with mostly high-school-age kids sitting in three rows of tables scribbling down answers to a series of questions. They all survived the first round of questions — identifying the addictive substance in tobacco as nicotine, recognizing a slide with an arrow pointing to the brain’s frontal lobe, understanding that when a blood vessel to the brain bursts from a clot it can cause a stroke.
The next round trimmed the field more radically, when those who knew that epinephrine and cortisol are the two major stress hormones and that the primary drug used to treat Parkinson’s is levodopa were sifted from those who didn’t.
“I think sunshine is a perfectly acceptable drug,” joked a girl.
Another giggled that she’d simply drawn a picture of a bumblebee for her last answer.
The field thinned and the tension mounted — did someone say something about stress hormones? — with each succeeding round.
Then came questions about the basal ganglia (associated with body movement), stapes (a tiny, stirrup-shaped bone in the middle ear) and hemiballismus (a type of movement associated with neurological disease), leaving only the brainiest of the brainiacs.
“They were well advanced from where I was at their age,” said neuroscientist Doug Wright, University of Kansas Medical Center professor of anatomy and cell biology. “If this sparks an interest in them to study science, we’ve done our job.”