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Kids have learning on the brains — literally — at UC Irvine conference

After months of learning about neuroscience, area students got to showcase their skills in front of leading brain scientists during UC Irvine's International Conference on Learning and Memory.

The five-day conference Wednesday through Sunday at the Waterfront Beach Resort in Huntington Beach featured panels where scientists presented their research on drug addiction, Alzheimer's disease, neuroscience and education.

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On Saturday, the first group of 40 second- through eighth-graders enrolled in the university's Brain Explorer Academy held their own exhibit where they displayed real human and sheep brains before participating in a live review of manuscripts by scientists at the conference.

The students showed off skills they learned as part of the Brain Explorer Academy, a pilot program in which students selected from Orange County schools learn about the brain from UCI students and staff with hands-on activities every Saturday morning.

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As guests walked into the conference room for the live review, many lingered near the back to take photos and hold the human and sheep brains on display, despite the pungent rotten-egg smell of a solution used to keep the brains firm and intact. Otherwise, they would turn into a "pancake" with a texture similar to Jell-O, according to Manuella Yassa, director of outreach and education for UCI's Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

One of the two human brains was a whole brain that still had its cover tissue, or dura mater. The other was a half brain.

The whole brain, donated by the neurobiology center, is thought to be from a healthy person, Yassa said, though she couldn't provide further details.

Anjum Shaik, 10, said her favorite part of the brain display was learning about the cerebral cortex and how each lobe has its own role.

Shazneen Shaik, 9, described the human brain as "spongy" with a "scientific" smell.

She said her favorite part of the event was cutting the half brain into slices and sharing what she learned during her time in the Brain Explorer Academy.

Caleb Goss, 7, of Irvine attended the panel with his family. Afterward, he got to hold the whole human brain.

Caleb described the brain as "hard" and said he had fun because he never imagined he would touch one.

Twitter: @vegapriscella

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