- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2001

Bad news: Your brain stopped growing a long time ago.
The human brain stops gaining weight at age 5. Beginning at age 28, the brain drops one gram of weight each year. If you use your brain, such as for reading, you can stay sharp as a tack. If not (i.e., chomping potato chips in front of the television set), neurons die and you'll lose what've you got.
Hungry for more brain food? "Brain: The World Inside Your Head," appearing at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building through Jan. 2, offers a heaping helping. The exhibition covers how the brain works, its history and its development. The show, however, only lightly explores afflictions such as Alzheimer's disease and anxiety disorder, as well as tackling the common headache. In one of the many interactive exhibits, visitors can try their hand at brain surgery.
On a recent day, the exhibit was packed with people of all ages. An interactive exhibit, where one tries to balance on a wobbling metal plate without falling or grabbing the handles, tests the connection between brain and the rest of the body. A 75-year-old retired psychologist from Bethesda waited patiently behind a horde of preschool-age children for her turn.
Her husband smirked as she ascended to the metal plate. Within seconds, the plate tottered and she reached out for the handles.
"It was harder than I thought," said Charlotte Simon, who made a special trip from the suburbs explicitly for the exhibit. Her husband, Ralph Simon, 78, is also a retired psychologist.
"It's so easy to understand. It explains the brain very nicely," Mrs. Simon said. "We're planning to bring our grandkids."
At the entrance, visitors walk through towering purple neurons for a look at real brains. Baboon brains are tiny, only one-third of a pound. In contrast, dolphin brains weigh just under four pounds. Human brains vary in size, but are usually 2 percent of a person's weight.
Brain development is traced from babyhood to old age. The rather dry explanations go no deeper than the grade-school health book. An exhibit allows visitors to test their hand-eye coordination by pulling a metal ring through a maze of metal. If the ring hits the maze, an annoying, shrill noise, (which can be heard throughout the exhibition hall) emits.
Most interesting of all is the brain's history. Let's just say ideas about the brain have come a long way. In 16th-century England, people thought the liver, not the brain, was the seat of emotion.
On view is the skull of a Peruvian man, who died between A.D. 1350 and 1500 with a hole in his head. It was common practice to cut holes in skulls to treat chronic headaches and psychological problems. Relieved visitors gasp at the ancient headache treatment. All appear glad to live in the age of Excedrin.
Brain disorders such as anxiety and depression are explained in simple terms, stressing that they are like any other illness. Interesting tidbits that adults may not know are included.
Today's doctors believe that Abraham Lincoln suffered from severe depression.
A quote from Lincoln reveals his deep melancholy: "I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family there would not be one cheerful face on earth."
The section on Alzheimer's disease contains the letter former President Ronald Reagan wrote to the American people in 1994 when he learned he was in the early stages of the disease. Placed next to a photograph of Mr. Reagan with a broad smile and cognizant eyes, the letter reads, "I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience."
About 38 percent of adults say they have a family member with a brain-related disorder, according to a survey by Pfizer, the sponsor of the exhibit. But only 16 percent of parents have thoroughly discussed mental illness with their children.
"Educating our children and perhaps in the process, ourselves is the first step in helping all people understand that brain-based conditions can and should be treated like any other physical disease or condition," says Dr. Randall Kaye, a pediatrician at the sponsoring pharmaceutical company.
Expect to dodge large crowds, but if brains interest you at all, visit the exhibition.

WHAT: "Brain: The World Inside Your Head."
WHERE: Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Drive SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, until Jan. 2
TICKETS: Free
PHONE: 202/357-2700 or www.si.edu


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