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NOVA scienceNOW: Of Mice and Memory

Viewing Ideas

Before Watching

Note: Some students might have trouble discussing this topic because they may have a family member with Alzheimer's disease.

  1. Model a nerve cell. Explain to students that the nervous system functions as the body's communication and control system. Alzheimer's disease symptoms result from damage to the nervous system, particularly brain damage and a disruption in nerve communication. Nerve cells (neurons) are a main component of the nervous system, and their unique structure allows rapid communication between the brain and parts of the body. Explain the functions of each part of a nerve cell and how information (electrical impulses) travels through nerve cells.

    • Dendrites deliver information to the nerve cell. Information (electrical impulses) travels down the axon towards the axon terminals. Axons are surrounded by a myelin sheath, which protects the axon and helps the nerve impulse travel faster. (Nerve impulses travel down the axon in only one direction.) At the axon terminal, the nerve communicates with a nerve dendrite or other body cell by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters.

    • Pair students and provide each one with two basic diagrams: one of a typical nerve cell and one of a typical body cell. The nerve diagram should include the cell body, nucleus, dendrites, axon, axon terminals, Schwann cells, and myelin sheath. Tell students that even though nerve cells vary in size and shape, most have the same specialized parts as those in the diagram.

    • Have pairs list some ways nerve cells are similar to and different from body cells. Have them share their list with the class. (Similar: They have a nucleus containing DNA, a cell membrane, and cytoplasm. Different: They have a very different shape, and long extensions with terminals that connect to other cells.)

    • Give pairs different colored pipe cleaners. Have them use the diagram to construct a nerve cell model. Then have them tape their models to a piece of paper and label the cell body, nucleus, dendrites, axon, axon terminals, and myelin sheath.

  2. Model a neural pathway. Review with students how nerve impulses travel (see Question 1). Then tell the class they will model a traveling nerve impulse representing multiple neurons consecutively firing to trigger a response far from the initial stimulus. Have students form a line, standing side to side, an arm's length apart. Initiate a nerve impulse by tapping the right hand of the first student. That student should, with their left hand, then tap the next students' right hand, and so on down the line. Continue until the last person in line performs an action, such as picking up a book. Process the activity by asking the following questions:

    • Which body part represented the dendrite? (Right hand/arm) The cell body? (Body trunk) The axon? (Left arm) The axon terminal? (Left Hand)

    • How many neurons were part of the nerve pathway? (The number of students plus the teacher)

    • How many directions did the impulse travel in? (One, always down the axon, toward the last student in line)

    • What would have happened if a nerve cell axon, dendrite, or cell body was destroyed? (The impulse would have stopped, preventing the communication. In this example, the book would not have been picked up.)

    • What would happen if the damaged nerve pathway, as occurs in Alzheimer's, related to retrieving a memory? (The memory would not be retrieved.)

After Watching

  1. Discuss ethical questions related to genetic testing for Alzheimer's Disease. Have student groups discuss the questions below and summarize their ideas. Then, conduct a class discussion.

    • If tests could predict that a person is likely to get a disease in the future, such as Alzheimer's, what are some advantages and disadvantages related to early detection?

    • What are the pros and cons of being required to be tested for debilitating diseases, such as Alzheimer's?

    • Who do you think should be allowed or not allowed to see a person's test results? Explain your reasoning.

  2. Prepare a poster and presentation about Alzheimer's disease. Discuss with students basic information about Alzheimer's disease (i.e., it results in a loss of memory, mental functions, and includes behavioral and personality changes). Then make teams of students, and have each one research an aspect of the disease listed below. Ask teams to prepare a poster and short presentation on their topic.

    • What is Alzheimer's disease and what are its symptoms? What evidence exists for the causes? What are some treatments and/or lifestyle changes that help slow the progress of the disease? What actions appear to delay the onset of the disease?

    • Who most often gets Alzheimer's disease? How prevalent is the disease? Generate a bar graph representative of disease statistics and age of onset of the disease. Be able to explain the graph. (Get Alzheimer statistics at

    • What are Alzheimer's care centers doing to ease the symptoms of people living with Alzheimer's disease? What are some things caregivers, friends, and relatives can do to make daily life for people living with Alzheimer's more enjoyable?

  3. Investigate the effects of the environment and lifestyle on memory and learning. In the segment, experiments with mice showed that enriched environments resulted in improved memory and stimulated the growth of neurons with more branches. In comparison, brain neurons of mice in sterile environments had a bare appearance with little branching. The segment also discussed how people with Alzheimer's disease had improved memory when moved from a sterile to an enriched environment. As a class, brainstorm factors, both positive and negative that students believe contribute or detract from their ability to remember and learn. (Possible answers—Positive: healthy diet; comfortable temperature; sufficient sleep; low levels of stress; mental engagement; comforting music; able to focus without interruption. Negative: poor diet; hunger; too cold or too hot; lack of sleep; boredom; stress; pain; lack of mental engagement or motivation; loud noise; constant interruption; inability to focus or concentrate) Have each student make a list of the features he or she would want to have in his or her ideal environment—one that would stimulate the memory and maximize learning. Have students describe these ideal learning environment.

Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA scienceNOW
Offers Alzheimer's-related resources, including additional activities, streamed video, and reports by experts.

AFA Teens
Provides information for teens about Alzheimer's disease symptoms and causes.

Alzheimer's Disease
Describes how Alzheimer's Disease changes the brain, and the site includes links to related articles for kids and teens.

Alzheimer's May Leave Some Forms of Memory Intact
Reports on research findings that suggest people with Alzheimer's retain some specific learning capabilities.

Brain Structures and their Functions
Describes the parts and functions of the nervous system and includes diagrams and pictures.

Neuroscience for Kids: Alzheimer's Disease
Presents basic information about Alzheimer's as well as scientific theories regarding its causes.


The Human Body Book
by Steve Parker.
Dorling Kindersley, 2004.
Provides information on and diagrams of different body systems including the brain and nervous systems.

The Human Brain Coloring Book
by Marion C. Diamond and Arnold B. Scheibel.
Oxford University Press, 1996.
Presents brain anatomy in coloring book form for students.

Activity Author

WGBH Outreach staff

Teacher's Guide
NOVA scienceNOW: Of Mice and Memory