Montreal’s Brain Awareness Week began in 1996 with the help of a group of neuroscience students at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Verdun in response to the formation of the U.S.-based Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.
Today, the organization is operated by McGill, Concordia, l’Université de Montréal, and UQÁM. With 300 presentations in over 150 schools, both anglo- and francophone, Montreal’s Brain Awareness Week has become a well-established presence in elementary and high schools throughout the island.
Brain Awareness Week’s mission is to increase public awareness about the brain and to inspire interest in brain research.
“Our mandate is […] to tell people of all ages and social structures about why brain research is important for health, and to get people excited about it,” explained Carelton University psychology professor Alfonso Abizaid.
Montreal’s Brain Awareness Week focuses its resources on elementary and high school students. Brain Awareness Week aims to debunk myths about boring science careers and offers kids a chance to see older students who are passionate about the brain.
“We target kids—though not exclusively—so that from an early age they start understanding how the brain works,” said Abizaid. “[We’re] getting them excited for that particular topic so that when they get older they have neuroscience [in their heads] as an option for their studies.”
The success of Montreal’s Brain Awareness Week is based on its core of student volunteers. At elementary schools, student volunteers explain the basics of the brain’s processing of the five senses. At the high school level, volunteers present a PowerPoint called “Drugs and the Brain.”
“I like that it’s not preachy,” explained Brain Awareness Montreal President Clara Bolster-Foucault.
The presentation covers everything from marijuana to cocaine to ecstasy. It offers a physiological explanation for behaviour and long-term effects based on drug-affected neurotransmission in the brain. At the end of the presentation, the volunteers bring out a preserved cow brain that the students in the classroom can touch and hold with gloved hands. The demonstration offers a hands-on approach to neuroscience.
“Students who I meet now that are volunteering say that they wish they had it around when they were [high school] students,” explained Kelly Hennegan, vice-president of the anglophone high school volunteering branch for Brain Awareness Week.
Hennegan and her co-vice-president are in charge of organizing student volunteers to visit anglophone high schools in the area. Throughout this year’s Brain Awareness Week, they have organized 65 presentations in high schools on and off the island.
“There’s a lot to coordinate,” Hennegan admitted. “It was definitely a lot more than I anticipated. You have to relinquish some control and delegate to others. But it’s nice to be a part of something that big.”
Brain Awareness Week is a part of the larger organization called Brain Awareness Montreal. Brain Awareness Montreal sponsors other activities including Brain-B, a neuroscience trivia competition for kids, an open house at the Montreal Neurological Institute, and Sci-Cafés.
“We started an outreach campaign for adults called Sci-Café,” explained Bolster-Foucault. “We have three of them every year and they are basically panel discussions on neuroscience topics.”
Past topics have included schizophrenia, sex and attachment, addiction, and concussions. The next Sci-Café will take place on April 8.
With brain research as the main tenet of Brain Awareness Week, Carleton professor Abizaid offers some advice on how to get started.
“Some people may be more interested in human research, others may be more interested in animal research or cellular or molecular lab work,” explained Abizaid. “It’s nice to gain some experience in both so that you can decide what it is you’re more passionate about. And when you find that passion, don’t let it go.”