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Ontario Science Centre brings the brain to life

Ontario Science Centre brings the brain to life

IMG_3249-3Felix is a highschool student from Toronto

I was invited to get a peek at the brand new Ontario Science Center exhibit about the most complicated piece of machinery on our planet: the brain.

Upon admission into the exhibit, the noise of crackling wires greeted us. An immense canopy of wires created an eerie atmosphere. It was overwhelming, the immense size and knowing that it represented our brain. And then I fell upon my favourite piece of the exhibit; a sculpture of a homunculus – small humanoid creature – with exaggerated hands and facial features and held up by two thin legs. It was meant to represent how the brain is called upon when we use our senses, the size increasing by how much we need it for that particular sense. For example the hands were grossly enlarged as we can feel more on our hands than, for example, the elbow…

Further into the exhibit we got to see the evolution of the brain. Beginning with single cell organisms with no brain at all, the brain slowly evolved and changed, splitting off between different species along the way. I had never realized how vastly each animal’s brain differed in shape.

The human brain is almost a mix of many different brains. For example, the cerebrum, or the folds that are mostly situated on the outer parts of the brain, is similar to a monkey’s while other parts are more similar to a lizard’s.

IMG_3252-2Then we saw how drugs and diseases affect the human brain. Drugs like cocaine block the removal of dopamine, the chemical that makes you happy, creating excess levels in the brain. Other drugs like caffeine prevent adenosine, the chemical that makes you sleepy, from getting to the receptors and preventing you from feeling tired.

In this area was also a part about Alzheimer’s disease. It was scary.  The display showed what a normal brain looked like versus the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s. The brain with Alzheimer’s seemed to have shrunk and shrivelled up. It made the disease feel so real…

Towards the end, various games meant to show the functions of your brain such as learning and memory were set up. Other stations had exercises to train and improve your brain with tasks such as spatial recall and problem solving.

One of the displays represented memory of London taxi drivers. People trying to become taxi drivers in London (England) have to memorize many different routes, taking note of the fastest one, then reciting them off the top of their head for a test before being allowed to drive a taxi. We were told that while taxi drivers know the most about the routes, the tourists often knew more about the city’s layout than the bus drivers. That’s because tourists are paying attention not to get lost, while bus drivers only need to know their own route and often get into a mechanical routine…

By then, we had been in the exhibit for well over an hour. The exhibit was a really interesting experience, and I really suggest all people go see it, at least to get a good look at the homunculus!


Welcome to the Sandwich Generation – extra mustard with mine please

Welcome to the Sandwich Generation – extra mustard with mine please

“Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.” — William Faulkner.

You never truly experience life, and your true potential for living, until you experience life’s real adventures. These are the moments that, in some ways define you, and in others, stretch you beyond unimaginable limits. I wouldn’t for a moment, suggest that I have overcome unthinkable odds; just watch the recent news and see real people dealing with dire situations. But in the past six months, I have had to face a very real challenge of my generation and it has given me the opportunity to feel that “pain” and immerse myself in some truly important life lessons.

My parents have Alzheimer’s disease. Some say it’s tougher that they both have it, but I see the positive side of the situation. They have each other and they depend on that more than anything else. They also live in this lovely parallel universe from time to time, where they have the most interesting discussions that only the two of them can understand. And understand each other they do. I have often stood on the sidelines, amazed at what I’m hearing, but not invited to participate in the conversation. But they have each other and their delightful discourse. Lesson number one.

As I waded through these last few months, educating myself, steeling myself for emergencies and trying to keep an even keel, I began to realize I have arrived at this moment in my life well equipped to handle the many extraordinary challenges that exist with aging parents and dementia. For eleven years, I have been a parent of a disabled child. He has mobility issues, speech issues and a mild intellectual delay. Initially, I thought of these two family dynamics as separate entities. Yet again and again, I have found the tools I’ve needed to care for my parents from the “toolbox” of my son Graydon’s life.

Communication is key with people with Alzheimer’s; eye contact, calm, slow speech, simple topics. Limit distractions, use reminders and cues, stick to concrete rather than abstract ideas. All strategies I have used and some I continue to use with my son. Foster their independence as much as possible. Encourage and reassure them that they are doing well and are loved. Keep their minds engaged and their bodies active. This has been a constant in my son’s life and the one thing that has helped him progress so well in his daily routine. For his grandparents, it is perhaps their biggest challenge but one worth pursuing every day.

The most common thread through this journey has been the ever-present need to protect their dignity and respect them, both my parents and my son. Their minds and bodies have challenged them but they are intelligent, funny, interesting people. Through the tougher moments, I have always focused on the individual and they never fail to amaze me with their insight and their collective experience. As with my son, just when I feel the overwhelming need to care for them, emotionally and physically, they turn around and enlighten me with their words and actions. Lesson number two.

I think life, in all its complicity, is really just one big classroom. We never really stop learning- through our parents, through our children. As arduous as our experiences might seem, they really are what nurtures our mind and body. I don’t think I would trade my lot in life for anything. Given the choice, I would still agree with Mr. Faulkner.


Deirdre-and-GraydonDeirdre Large is a 46 year old mom of three boys, a wife, and a daughter of two newly diagnosed parents.