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Imagine what your own brain looks like inside your head. It is pinkish gray on the outside, yellowish white on the inside, and covered with ripples or convolutions. The brain has a delicate consistency, like soft ice cream, and requires the shell-like skull to protect it from injury. Although it may not seem like it, you have just performed an amazing feat. You have used your brain to think about itself. As far as we know, human beings are the only animals on Earth who can contemplate their own brains. If you take a close look at a human brain, you'll find it has three main parts. By far, the largest is the cerebrum on top. The intricate surface of the cerebrum is called the cerebral cortex. Although only 0.3 centimeters (1/8") thick, the cerebral cortex is critical to your ability to move as you please, to understand what you see and hear, and to do the complex process called thinking--making decisions, learning, analyzing, remembering, planning, and contemplating. Your cerebrum is divided into two halves. Each has specialized functions. An "electric highway" of nerve fibers, the corpus callosum, connects the two, allowing information to pass between. At the back of your brain and beneath the cerebral cortex is the cerebellum. It coordinates skilled movement, giving you the ability to juggle, dance, type, walk without stumbling, and drink without slobbering. Located at the base of the brain is the brain stem, a stalklike structure that connects it to the spinal cord. The brain stem takes care of basic, involuntary functions, such as breathing, blinking, and keeping your intestines churning. Every part of the human brain is made of billions of nerve cells called neurons. Each neuron has connections to thousands of other neurons. For you to read this (or even to daydream), millions of your neurons must communicate with one another. A neuron accepts signals from other neurons through branchlike structures called dendrites. Whenever enough messages arrive from neighboring neurons to excite it, a neuron sends an electrical impulse down its trunklike axon. When the impulse arrives at the end of the axon, it causes little sacs to release chemical messengers. These chemicals, called neurotransmitters , then travel across tiny gaps called synapses to arrive at and excite other neurons. When you learn something new, your neurons actually grow more dendrites to reach other neurons. The more you practice, the stronger these connections become. With 100 trillion possible connections, your brain is one of the most complex regions in the universe.
  • When are you most aware of your brain in action? Which parts of your brain do you think are active when you sleep?
  • What does information overload feel like? When, if ever, has it happened to you?
  • Do you think your brain is similar to a computer? Why do some researchers compare a single neuron in the brain to a computer?


Santiago Ramon y Cajal, a Spanish artist and neuroscientist, was the first person to figure out what a neuron looks like. Using a cell-staining substance called silver salts, he was able to observe and draw the intricate patterns of neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Through his research, he concluded that synapses provide the means for communication between nerve cells. In 1906 he won the Nobel Prize for his work. Use artistic and research skills to create your own model of a neuron.


An assortment of construction or modeling materials, such as:
  • dominoes
  • felt-tip markers
  • paper cups and plates
  • Ping-Pong balls
  • plastic tubes
  • plastic wrap
  • sculpting clay
  • small squeeze bottles
  • wire
  1. Research: Working alone or with a partner, investigate what a neuron looks like and what it does. What aspect of the neuron interests you the most? Find the images and descriptions that you think illustrate it best.
  2. Initial plans: Decide what form you want your model to take. As you design your model, emphasize the features that you find most interesting or important. If you are collaborating with someone else, discuss your ideas with one another. Sketch out what you want your neuron model to look like.
  3. Building: Use the materials you find most appropriate and begin building. If you get frustrated, take a break to look around at what others are doing, and then come back to your work in progress. If a certain material doesn't do what you would like, try another. Work with your model until you feel it represents the basic structure and ideas you want it to represent.
  4. Extending the model: If you haven't already, try extending your model to include neurotransmitters, both those that excite and those that inhibit another neuron from firing. Have several students "connect" their models together to show how neurons communicate as a neural network. How would you represent the stimulating effect of caffeine?


    1. Do you think your model might help someone understand a neuron better? What aspects does it illustrate well? Is it more concerned with how the neuron looks or with how it works?


  • Diamond, M. Within the human brain. (videotape). University
    of California Extension Center for Media. Available through
    Lawrence Hall of Science store, Berkeley: (510) 642-1929.
  • Experiments in human physiology. Grades 7 and up. Apple IIs
    with a minimum of 48K. Queue, Inc.: (800) 232-2224
  • Mind and brain. (1993) Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books.
  • The mystifying mind. (1991) Morristown, NJ: Time-Life Books.
  • Restak, R.M. (1994) Receptors. New York: Bantam Books.
  • Stein, S. (1992) The body book. New York: Workman Publishing.
  • Willensky, D. (1993, Dec) The brain. American Health, p. 78.
  • Stark, F. (1991) Gray's anatomy: A fact-filled coloring book.
    Philadelphia: Running Press.

Additional sources of information

National Foundation for Brain Research
1250 24th St. NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20037

Community resources

Local MRI laboratory
University medical school