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Sunday, April 4, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large / Times staff columnist

Brain trust: Scientist shares his enthusiasm

You've probably heard that humans use only 10 percent of our brains, and you may even know one or two people who seem to confirm that idea. Maybe you can think of more than one or two.

But it isn't true. We use all of our brain, the physical organ, though we don't always make the most of our minds.

Eric Chudler has been trying for years to get people to use more of their minds to think about their brains. He's a neuroscientist at the University of Washington who as a sideline teaches young children about their brains.

"How can you not be interested in the brain?" Chudler asks. "The brain is who we are."

Yet people will spend hours tending to their hair and never give a thought to their brains. Even in school, the brain usually gets only a passing mention. Everybody knows it's gray and wiggles like Jell-O, but that's about it.

Chudler doesn't look like he spends much time worrying about his hair. His eyeglasses are larger than the current fashion, and his shoes are practical. He's a slender, mid-40s guy who found just the right role for himself.

Each year he puts together an open house at the UW during International Brain Awareness week. This year 310 children came to ogle preserved brains floating in solution and to do brain-related experiments.

I met him at last year's open house. Chudler also visits schools with a show-and-tell presentation he's been refining for years.

The other day at Van Asselt Elementary School in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood, he got oohs and aahs from an audience of fourth graders who sat at long orange tables in the cafeteria.

The average adult brain weighs about three pounds. Ooooo.

There are about 100 billion nerve cells in one brain. Wow.

Chudler juggled three plastic brains while he talked about the many functions brains control.

He also told the kids about some of the things that can go wrong when the brain and nervous system malfunction. His specialty is pain, and he has been researching the pain related to Parkinson's disease.

Chudler says one of the main reasons people ought to be more interested in the brain is that almost everyone at some point will be affected by a neurological disorder either directly or through someone close to them.

Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, autism, attention deficit-hyperactivity, cerebral palsy — the list is long.

One of the three fourth-grade teachers whose children listened to Chudler, Salam Fares, says she's given the brain a lot of thought because she thinks it's the most important organ.

One of the tools she uses to help her teach students about the nervous system is a Web site Chudler developed called Neuroscience for Kids, faculty.washington.edu/chudler/neurok.html.

Lots of schools around the country use the Web site, and it has been translated for use in Chinese, Slovenian, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish and Italian.

This sideline of Chudler's got started when his daughter, who's a seventh grader now, was in preschool and the teacher asked parents to teach the kids something from their field.

His presentation went over well, and he started collecting stuff that kids would like to know, and started playing around with a Web site to help him keep track of the information. Since then, he's won awards for the site and now helps teachers develop lessons.

He and his fourth-grade son have put together an animated Web cartoon in which three neurons give a boy a tour of his brain.

Chudler's parents were both teachers in Los Angeles and people who like to explore new territory. They took their kids to live in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for a couple of years in the late '60s.

Chudler came back to L.A. for seventh grade, then the family was off to Kobe, Japan, for three years.

The children looking at the brains he brought with him to Van Asselt know about new worlds. Many of them are from immigrant families.

Scientists tend to each focus on one small part of brain function, but Chudler says, "Maybe one of these kids will be the one to put the brain together."

You never know where your interests will lead you, or who will influence the direction you take.

When Chudler graduated from high school in 1976, he thought he wanted to be a marine biologist. He was a junior at UCLA before he took his first psychology class.

The professor, John Liebeskind, a pioneer in the study of the brain's pain-relief system, needed a couple of lab helpers. Chudler signed up. Liebeskind said hey, you're good at this stuff, and sent him off to the UW, where he got his master's and Ph.D. in psychology.

"The excitement of discovery is what hooked me to the study of the brain."

He's hoping the excitement will be contagious; that other people will be enthralled by their gray matter. His Web site introduces itself this way:

"The smell of a flower — The memory of a walk in the park — The pain of stepping on a nail. These experiences are made possible by the 3 pounds of tissue in our heads ... the BRAIN!!"

It's nice to meet someone who's using all of his brain all of the time and even sharing it with other people.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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