Brain Building 101

Students working on a brain model

The first veterinary students at OSU arrived in 1979. That year in the fledgling College of Veterinary Medicine, four faculty taught four courses to 36 students. “It’s hard to believe we taught the whole first year curriculum in two rooms at Dryden Hall,” says Professor Linda Blythe. “We made one of them a lab with just tables. The other was a ‘lecture hall’ and the students were crammed into it.”

One of the early courses was First-year Neuroscience and Blythe has taught it ever since. Over many years she has developed it into one of the student’s favorite classes, partly because it includes so much hands-on learning. “You can’t just tell a student ‘This is normal and this isn’t.’ What’s normal in a Chihuahua isn’t normal in a German Shepard,” says Blythe. “We bring in a lot of animals so they can practice. It’s teaching them the art of a neurologic exam.  When they learn it and feel confident, they will pick up much more than they would via a detailed print out. That’s the exciting part.”

In First-year Neuroscience, even the final exam involves a room full of dogs, cats, ducks, rabbits, and whatever animals Blythe can round up for the students to evaluate. “One year I brought in 27 animals. I rotate them because an animal can only take so many exams before they go blitzo – especially the cats,” she says. “I mix normal animals in with ones who have health issues. I bring my own dog, Roxy, who is cerebellar hypoplastic so they can compare the way she walks with the others.”

First-year Neuroscience also hosts the popular ‘Build A Brain’ project. Students spend three lab periods studying brain topography and inner structures by dissecting sheep and cattle brains to get a feel for 3-dimensional anatomy. Blythe feels this is critical to understanding  the neurological function of animals. “If they get a tumor behind their ear, it can affect hearing or balance or facial paralysis,” says Blythe. “It’s almost like electrical engineering; students have to understand the wiring going through and around that tumor.”

In the fourth week of class, Blythe gives student cans of colored Playdo and a simple frame on which to build a model brain. Small groups work together to construct an accurate model with each Playdo color representing a different structure in the brain – cerebrum, medulla, cerebellum,etc.  At the end of the lab, students line up their brains on a table and Blythe grades them. She primarily looks for accurate placement of components. Getting that right is not easy: some parts of the brain wrap around others and some fork in different directions. “Where they get confused is in the upper part of the brain underneath the cortex where it is so complicated,” says Blythe. The top three brains earn prizes for their builders and each student receives a commemorative photo. Blythe collects animal-themed trinkets to award as prizes.

Why does she go to all this trouble? “You can teach neuroscience from a fact point of view but I was taught it that way and I didn’t remember it. They remember this.” Student Shelby Johnson agrees: “Those of us who are kinesthetic learners like to get our hands involved in the learning process.” She also appreciated the opportunity to “play at the same time – that is something that is entirely under-rated.”

After four weeks of learning about how things are put together, Blythe shows students how it all works. That also involves hands-on learning. “When I talk about a reflex pathway which is between a motor neuron and a muscle, like the one that causes your knee to jerk,” she says, “I ask for the most nervous person in the class to volunteer to come up and sit on the table. Then I tap their patella tendon with a reflex hammer and they are usually so tense, their leg goes boing! Then I let students tap my patella but I have a peripheral neuropathy so my knee reflex doesn’t work as it should. They hammer away on my leg and nothing happens. I say, ‘Are you sure you are hitting the right spot?’ It’s a lot of fun for the students but it also introduces them to one of the critical aspects of a good neurological exam: judging reflexes to help identify a possible lesion.”

After 33 years Blythe still enjoys teaching. “I really enjoy interacting with the students,” she says. “You can often see the light go on when they get a major concept.  That really makes me feel worthwhile in what I am doing.” Blythe also recognizes that her long career in teaching has enriched her personally. “I am a kinder, more patient person and I have learned so much more than I knew when I started because as you work with students and they pose questions to you, you grow in knowledge.”