Volume 3, Issue 12 (December, 1999)


Welcome to the Neuroscience for Kids Newsletter.

Here is what you will find in this issue:

1. What's New on the Neuroscience for Kids Web Pages
2. The Neuroscience for Kids Page of the Month
3. Back Pain From Backpacks?
4. Snowboarding vs Skiing: How do Head Injuries Compare?
5. Visitors to the Lab
6. Media Alert
7. Treasure Trove of Brain Trivia
8. How to Stop Your Subscription


Neuroscience for Kids had several new additions in November. Here are some of them:

A. November Neuroscience for Kids Newsletter was archived
B. December NeuroCalendar
C. Online Coloring Book
D. The Prefrontal Cortex and Moral Behavior
E. More Good News for Aging Brains
F. Fetal Surgery for Spina Bifida
G. Neuroscience Treasure Hunt #3
H. More Neuroscience Stationery

In November, 22 new figures were added and 77 pages were modified.


The Neuroscience for Kids "Page of the Month" for December is "The Reconstructors" at:

It is the year 2252 in the city of Neuropolis. You are a "reconstructor" and your job is to explore ancient documents in search of medicine to relieve pain. That is the setup of a new, interactive adventure game on this web site developed at Rice University with a Science Education Drug Abuse Partnership Award.

At "The Reconstructors," you will explore virtual environments and answer various questions on your quest to find pain medication. You will learn not only about neuroscience, but also about history and geography. There is even a virtual laboratory for you to test substances that may reduce pain.

"The Reconstructors" uses the Shockwave Flash 4.0 plug-in for your browser and its file size is quite large (over 1 MB). However, once the game is loaded it works smoothly. Only episode one of The Reconstructors is currently available, but more episodes are under development.


PAIN: the perception that something hurts. It is your brain's job to tell you what hurts, how much it hurts, where it hurts and what to do about it.

One common type of pain is lower back pain. Back pain is NOT just a problem for adults. Studies show that 10-40% of middle and high school students experience back pain. Possible causes of back pain include poor posture, spinal alignment problems, smoking, poor muscle strength and psychological disturbances. Could heavy backpacks that students carry to school also contribute to back pain?

There have been many stories in the popular media about how heavy backpacks may cause back pain in students. With students using backpacks to carry heavy items such as large textbooks, sports equipment and even laptop computers to school, there is concern that students are at risk for back problems. Surprisingly, few scientific studies have actually looked for a possible link between backpacks and back pain.

A recent research paper from France (Viry et al., 1999) tried to answer this question by giving a questionnaire to 123 eighth grade students. Students were asked how they got to school (walk or ride), how they carried their back packs (by hand or on the shoulders), how much their packs weighed, and if they had any back pain.

The average age of the students was 14 years, the average body weight of the students was 113 pounds (51.5 kg), and the average weight of their backpacks was 21.1 pounds (9.6 kg). This means that the students were carrying backpacks that weighed almost 20% of their body weight. On the day that the students answered the questionnaire, 27.6% said they had back pain. A large number (82.9%) of the students said they had back pain sometime during the previous 12 months.

More interesting results:

1. Girls reported more back pain than boys.

2. Students who walked to school had more back pain than those who rode.

3. Compared with students who carried their packs on their shoulders, students who carried their packs by hand were more likely to be absent from school or miss sport activities because of their back pain.

4. Students who carried packs that weighed 20% or more of their body weight reported more back pain and had to see a doctor more often for their back pain compared with students who carried less heavy packs.

These data suggest an association between backpack weight and back pain in students. The French Bureau of Education and the American Chiropractic Association recommend that backpacks weigh no more than 10% of a student's body weight; the American Physical Therapy Association says packs should weigh no more than 15-20% of a person's body weight.

Here are some other recommendations to reduce the risk of back pain:

1. Wear both straps of your backpack.
2. Make sure pointed objects in the pack do not rub against your back.
3. Use padded shoulder straps.
4. Wear a backpack that fits properly.
5. Carry only those items that you really need.

What about your backpack? How heavy is it in relation to how much you weigh? Weigh yourself and weigh your backpack. Divide the backpack weight by your body weight and then multiply by 100. The resulting number is the percentage of backpack weight relative to your body weight. Is it over 20%?

Print References:
Taimela et al., Spine, 22:1132-1136, 1997.
Troussier et al., Rev. Rhum. (Engl. Ed.), 66:370-380, 1999.
Viry et al., Rev. Rhum. (Engl. Ed.), 66:381-388, 1999.


Winter will be arriving in the northern hemisphere this month. Many of you may be planning a trip up to the mountains for some skiing and snowboarding. Here are some numbers to think about as you head up to the slopes:

Number of head injuries from snowboarding = 6.5 per 100,000 visits
Number of head injuries from skiing = 3.8 per 100,000 visits

% of head injuries caused by jumps (snowboarders) = 30%
% of head injuries caused by jumps (skiers) = 1%

% of head injuries to beginners (snowboarders) = 42%
% of head injuries to beginners (skiers) = 31%

% of head injuries considered to be "major" (snowboarders) = 6.3%
% of head injuries considered to be "major" (skiers) = 1.3%

These data show that skiing and snowboarding differ in the way people suffer head injuries. These differences may be caused by:

1. The way people behave on the slopes. It could be that snowboarders take more risks or try new tricks too soon. This may be why more head injuries occur in beginner snowboarders compared to beginner skiers.

2. The way people fall. In fact, backward falls accounted for 58% of the head injuries to snowboarders, but only 35% of the head injuries to skiers.

Snowboarding and skiing are both great sports. Enjoy yourself...just be careful out there on the slopes.

Reference: Nakaguchi et al., Snowboard head injury: prospective study in Chino, Nagano, for two seasons from 1995 to 1997, Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection and Critical Care, 46:1066-1069, 1999.

For information on the use of helmets while skiing and snowboarding, please see:


About two weeks ago, three second grade students from a local elementary school visited my lab. These students are working on a science fair project that they will present to their school in February. They wanted to know what it is like to be a scientist. Some of their questions were difficult for me to answer, and all of their questions made me think. Here is a sample of their questions and my answers:

Question: What made you want to be a scientist? Answer: When I was in high school I wanted to be a marine biologist. I had a great biology teacher who got me interested in science. However, it was not until my junior year in college when I had the opportunity to work in the laboratory of Dr. John Liebeskind at UCLA that I decided to go into neuroscience.

Question: How long did it take you to be a scientist? Answer: 12 years in elementary, junior and high school; 4 years in college; 5 years in graduate school. So far that is 21 years. I also had 3 additional years of postdoctoral training after my Ph.D.

Question: Do you use any special equipment? Answer: I am a neurophysiologist. That means I study the function of the nervous system. The way I do this is to record the electrical activity from the brain. I record from single nerve cells called neurons. Because the signal from each neuron is very small, I have to use equipment to make the signal bigger (amplify the signal). I also use something called an oscilloscope to see the signals, a speaker to hear the signals and a video cassette recorder to keep a record of the signals. I also use a computer to analyze the data.

Question: If you were not a scientist, what kind of job would you have? Answer: [I had to think about this for a long time because I had never thought of other careers.] I would probably be a teacher. Both of my parents are teachers who are now retired, but still substitute teach. I have found that it is very rewarding to help people learn new things.

After the interview, I took the students to my laboratory and showed them around. They saw and heard action potentials, looked at neurons under the microscope and outlined some brain sections on a microprojector. Then it was time for them to get back to school. On the way out, we passed by the University of Washington Health Sciences Library. I took them in for a quick tour. They were all impressed with the size of the library and the large number of books and journals. They couldn't believe that this library is one of the smaller libraries on campus.

I look forward to seeing these students again in February during their science fair presentation. Who knows? Maybe I will see them again on the University of Washington campus in 10 college students!


A. "What Dreams Are Made Of" in Newsweek magazine, November 8, 1999

B. "The Neurological Tourist" by Beverly Joyce and Stephen Farenga in Science Scope, Nov/Dec 1999 issue, pages 40-41. Joyce and Farenga discuss the Neuroscience for Kids web site and provide ways for students and teachers to use the material outside of the classroom.

C. "Dyslexia and the New Science of Reading" in Newsweek Magazine, November 22, 1999, pages 72-78. D. "The Brain's Power to Heal" in Parade Magazine (Sunday insert), November 21, 1999, pages 10-13.

E. "How the Brain Creates the Mind" by Antonio R. Damasio in Scientific American, December 1999, pages 112-117.

F. "Do You See What They See" by Brad Lemley in Discover Magazine, December 1999, pages 80-87. This article discusses "synesthesia" (tasting shapes, smelling colors and seeing sounds).


A. The term "homo sapiens" comes from the Latin words meaning "wise man."

B. People who say they write with their right hand = 89.06%; those who write with their left hand = 10.60%; those who write with either hand = 0.34% (statistics from W. Calvin, "The Throwing Madonna: Essays on the Brain," 1983).

C. In 1891, Wilhelm von Waldeyer coined the term "neuron."

D. The spinal cord runs through bones called vertebrae. A giraffe has seven vertebrae in its neck...this is the same number of neck bones as in people and most other mammals.

E. The world's largest invertebrate (animal without a backbone) is the giant squid (Architeuthis dux). The giant squid can grow up to 18 m (59 ft) long and weigh up to 900 kg (1,980 lb).


To remove yourself from this mailing list and stop your subscription to the Neuroscience for Kids Newsletter, send e-mail to Dr. Eric H. Chudler at:


Your comments and suggestions about this newsletter and the "Neuroscience for Kids" web site are always welcome. If there are any special topics that you would like to see on the web site, just let me know.


Eric H. Chudler, Ph.D.

"Neuroscience for Kids" is supported by a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Center of Research Resources.