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Of Mice and Memory

Classroom Activity

Activity Summary
Students make a model of the human brain and use it to map the brain structures that govern different functions and behaviors.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • explain that the brain is divided into distinct functional sections.

  • relate the various parts of the brain to the functions they control.

  • identify the parts of the brain most commonly associated with Alzheimer's.

  • explain how Alzheimer's-related changes in the brain affect mood, memory, and behavior.

Suggested Time
One class period

Materials for each team
  • 1 head of cauliflower, cut into equal halves
  • food coloring (package containing enough basic colors for mixing)
  • cotton swabs
  • toothpicks
  • pad of sticky notes
  • scissors
  • paper towels
  • sheet of blank paper
  • ice cube tray or stack of 3 oz. paper cups
  • small cup of water
  • plastic knives
  • Modeling the Brain student handout

The NOVA scienceNOW segment Of Mice and Memory reveals that Alzheimer's disease erodes people's memories and changes their personalities. By destroying brain cells, Alzheimer's disrupts normal patterns of communication between neurons. This, in turn, affects the actions and behaviors governed by the region of the brain where neurons have been destroyed. Scientists are still searching for the causes of Alzheimer's, but a substantial body of evidence suggests that, in the early phases of the disease, destruction of cells in one specific region—the hippocampus—explains much of the memory loss associated with Alzheimer's.

Your students may be surprised to learn that, rather than being one big mass of tissue, the brain is made of distinct, specialized regions that govern different functions in the body. Recent advances in imaging techniques have allowed researchers to pinpoint the regions of the brain that are active when people perform a range of tasks. These techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scanning, show regions of brain activity by detecting areas of increased cellular metabolism in the brain. In other words, these types of scans highlight which parts of the brain are "working" by identifying areas where brain cells are breaking down nutrients to produce energy. These devices can detect this higher energy level as well as areas of increased blood flow. Such scans can also help scientists detect differences in brain activity between healthy individuals and those with illnesses such as Alzheimer's.

You may need to remind your students that, just like the other organs of the body, the brain is an organ made up of specialized cells. In the brain, there are two types of specialized cells: neurons—cells that are specialized for receiving and transmitting information, and glial cells—"supporting" cells that allow the neurons to function properly. Also remind students that all cells, including neurons, contain the genetic material DNA inside a structure called the nucleus. Scientists like David Sweatt, who is featured in the video, are exploring how processes that affect DNA inside brain cells may contribute to memory formation.

In this activity, your students will build a model of the brain and learn about the structures associated with various brain functions. They also will research how Alzheimer's-related damage to different brain regions affects mood, memory, or behavior. You may wish to have the class do this activity before they watch the video to help familiarize students with the connections between brain structure and function.

Procedure Before the Lesson
  • Plan to have computer access for each pair or small group of students; this activity requires students to have access to several educational Web sites.
  • Obtain enough heads of cauliflower so that each student pair or group will have one head to work with. (Grocery stores often discard unsold produce; your local grocery store may be willing to give you unused cauliflower or to make a donation to your class.) NOTE: To cut costs, you may choose to have students work in groups of four. Within the group, each pair of students can work on one half of a cauliflower and then compare their halves to make a full model of the brain. You also may choose to have students build their structures from modeling dough, which you can make ahead of time from simple ingredients including flour, water, and salt.
  • Assemble other materials for each group of students.
  • Print enough copies of the Modeling the Brain student handout (PDF) for each student.
  • On class computers, bookmark the Web pages 3-D Brain Anatomy, Human Brain Map, Symptoms: Recognizing Alzheimer's, and Of Mice and Memory.
The Lesson
  1. Give each student a copy of the Modeling the Brain handout. Have them read the introductory paragraph. Discuss the Brain Structure and Function table and the names of the brain structures and regions with the class before they begin the activity.

  2. Next, divide the class into pairs (or groups). Have each group visit the Web sites 3-D Brain Anatomy and Human Brain Map.

  3. Tell students to use the information at these Web sites to complete the "Function" column of the Brain Structure and Function table on their Modeling the Brain handouts. You may need to explain to the class that the Web sites portray the brain in slightly different ways. 3-D Brain Anatomy shows them a 3-D brain model that they can rotate in every direction, while Human Brain Map shows a cross section of the brain, roughly analogous to the interior of the cauliflower halves they are using as models.

  4. Provide each pair or group with the materials. Have groups assign a unique color to each structure or region on the Brain Structure and Function table. They may paint these colors directly on the table as a key.

  5. Have students paint their cauliflower brains, following the color keys they established. They will paint a total of 10 different parts of the brain.

  6. Next, have teams write the name of each brain region and its associated functions on sticky notes. Have them make toothpick flags with these notes and stick them into the corresponding "brain" structures on their cauliflower model.

    Note: Students will need to mix food colorings so they will have enough colors for the different regions of the brain. They may use the wells of the ice cube trays or separate paper cups to mix colors. Painting the cauliflower works best with a slightly moistened cotton swab. Also, have students use undiluted food coloring. The colors do not adhere well if the food coloring is diluted with water.

  7. Have teams display their work for others to see.

  8. Finally, have students watch the segment Of Mice and Memory. When they have completed the segment, ask them to make predictions about how Alzheimer's-related changes to particular brain regions may affect mood, memory, or behavior. They should write their predictions in the fourth column of the Brain Structure and Function table.

  9. Have students compare their predictions with the information they will find on the Web site Symptoms: Recognizing Alzheimer's. The Web site does not include all the regions of the brain listed in the table—Alzheimer's typically follows a pattern in which it begins in the hippocampus and later develops in the lobes of the cerebrum.

  10. Ask students to answer the questions on the handout.

    As an extension, you may have students model Alzheimer's-related changes in the brain. Project the image found at Your Brain on the board and discuss three of the physical changes that take place inside the brain of a person with Alzheimer's. Have students use this visual as a guide as they carve one of the halves of their cauliflower brain model in a way that simulates the cell loss associated with Alzheimer's. Compare these halves with the original halves. What differences do they see?

    As an additional extension, lead a discussion about how cell loss accounts for some of the changes in mood, memory, and behavior associated with Alzheimer's disease. You may wish to emphasize that just as all the organs in your body need to work together to keep you alive, all the regions of the brain must work together to help you carry out many of the activities you perform every day. What might happen when some of those regions begin to deteriorate?

  1. In this model, what does the cauliflower represent? Why is it sliced in half?
    The cauliflower represents the shape and structures of the human brain. It is sliced in half to facilitate labeling of the structures in the brain's interior; these are not visible from the outer surface.

  2. The actions that are part of making and eating a sandwich require a lot of input from your brain. Describe some of the steps involved in these processes, and indicate which major regions of the brain would be activated for each step.
    Use the table below as a rough guide; student answers will vary.

    Lobes of the cerebrum Active in reasoning and thinking about how to make a sandwich; planning the steps in making a sandwich; moving and orienting around the kitchen to gather ingredients and supplies; processing visual information about ingredients
    Cerebellum Maintaining balance while standing at the counter or table and while walking around the kitchen
    Brain stem Regulating body movement, posture, and eye movement while looking for ingredients and equipment to make a sandwich
    Limbic system Remembering how to make a sandwich; sending hunger signals

  3. Scientists suggest that destruction of brain cells, especially in the hippocampus, causes some of the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Explain why destruction of the cells in the hippocampus might account for some of the memory loss associated with Alzheimer's.
    The hippocampus is the brain region associated with memory and learning. Destroying the cells in this region may destroy the memories formed there.

  4. What are some limitations of using models to study scientific concepts? What are some strengths? Your answers should include a reference to the cauliflower/brain activity.
    Limitations: Models can't show processes or activity; models can oversimplify actual biological structures.
    Strengths: models offer an easy way to visualize structures that might otherwise be hard to see; in this activity, the model helped show that the brain isn't just one solid, undifferentiated structure as it's sometimes represented in textbooks.

Activity Answer

Suggested answers for the Brain Structure and Function table :

Brain Structure/System Region Function Changes in mood or behavior with Alzheimer's-related changes in region
cerebrum (also called cerebral cortex) frontal lobe reasoning; speech; planning; movement; emotions; problem solving Losing the ability to plan or begin new activities
parietal lobe movement and orientation; recognition; perception of stimuli Becoming lost or disoriented; confusing common household objects
occipital lobe visual processing Losing ability to recognize people and faces
temporal lobe perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech Losing ability to remember words; occasionally "hearing things" (auditory hallucinations)
cerebellum (has two hemispheres) movement; posture; balance (students are not asked to fill in this cell)
brain stem (made up of the medulla, pons and midbrain) basic processes such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, and body temperature; also monitors hunger, thirst, and aspects of the sleep cycle. Changes in sleep patterns; later in the disease, breathing and heart rate may be affected.
limbic system thalamus sensory processing and movement (students are not asked to fill in this cell)
hypothalamus body temperature; hunger; thirst; circadian rhythms Losing short-term memory and ability to learn new things; confusion
amygdala basic emotions such as fear Expressing unusual or inappropriate behaviors
hippocampus learning and memory Losing short-term memory and ability to learn new things; confusion.

Use the following rubric to assess each team's work.

Excellent Satisfactory Needs improvement
Brain model
  • Students use resources effectively to answer the activity questions and to build their models.
  • Students show ability to integrate information from multiple resources and are able to answer additional questions about brain structure and function.
  • Students need assistance while using resources and have difficulty integrating information from more than one resource.
  • Students only partially complete the Brain Structure and Function table.
  • Students have difficulty connecting the resources to the model-building activity or to the activity questions, or make little effort to create a brain model.
  • Students cannot integrate information from multiple resources to correctly complete the Brain Structure and Function table.


"Of Mice and Memory" aligns with the following National Science Education Standards (see

Grades 9-12
Life Science

The behavior of organisms

Science and Technology
Understandings about science and technology

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Personal and Community Health

Classroom Activity Author

Jennifer Cutraro and WGBH Educational Outreach Staff

Jennifer Cutraro has 12 years of experience in science writing and education. She has written text and ancillaries for Houghton Mifflin, K12, and Delta Education and has taught science and environmental education at science centers across the country. She also contributes news and feature stories about science and health to media outlets including The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Science News for Kids and Scholastic Science World.

Teacher's Guide
NOVA scienceNOW: Of Mice and Memory

Website3-D Brain Anatomy Shockwave Interactive
WebsiteHuman Brain Map Flash Interactive
WebsiteSymptoms: Recognizing Alzheimer's Web site
WebsiteOf Mice and Memory QuickTime or Windows Media video