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Lesson plan:
How diseases affect the brain

November 30, 2000
Web posted at: 5:35 PM EST (2235 GMT)


Neurological diseases test scientists' extensive but still limited knowledge of the complex workings of the brain and nervous system.


To understand the basic parts and functions of the brain and how certain diseases affect those functions.

Grade level


Time frame

About one day


Our nervous system is divided into the central nervous and peripheral nervous systems. The central system consists of the brain and the spinal cord. The peripheral system is essentially all the nerves that connect the rest of the body to the brain and spinal cord. For example, to move your hand, your brain sends a "message" to the spinal cord, which then transmits this message through nerves that run from the spinal cord directly to the muscles. Conversely, when you stub your toe, a sensory nerve sends a "message" to the brain via the spinal cord. (The individual nerve cells that go from the spinal cord to your toes - and vice versa - can be as long as 3 feet, depending on how tall you are.)

The central and peripheral nervous systems consist of billions of nerve cells called neurons. Neurons are separated by spaces called synapses. They communicate with each other by releasing small molecules called neurotransmitters that traverse the synapse and attach themselves to receptors on the "post-synaptic" neuron. The coupling of neurotransmitters with the receptors causes intracellular changes in the post-synaptic neuron. This neuron may then become a pre-synaptic neuron by passing on the "message" to other neurons or muscles or other cells that receive instructions from the nervous system.

Diseases of the brain can cause problems by affecting the neurons themselves, the neurotransmitters or the receptors. Damage at any of these levels can cause symptoms such as memory loss, confusion or difficulty controlling movement.

In this project, you'll study one of three neurological diseases: Alzheimer's, schizophrenia or Tourette's syndrome.

Please send questions you'd like to see asked on "Your Brain," a live webcast on December 7, 2000. E-mail us at:
Please tell us what you think of the "Your Brain" lesson materials and the webcast. E-mail us at:

1. Start at the Explore the Brain and Spinal Cord site to learn more about the brain and nervous system and to read about the specifics of your chosen disease.

Then go to the, type in the name of the disease you're studying in the search box and click on the encyclopedia entries that tell you more about it.

Tap additional resources at, a site sponsored by the former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

Finish up by checking news organizations on the Web for any breaking news on the effort to cure the disease you're studying.

Don't forget to check out North Carolina State University's Guide to Citing Web Resources for rules for citing Internet sources -- you'll need it for your final written report.

2. Answer these questions as you search: What are the symptoms of this disease? Which areas of the brain do scientists think are most affected by this disease and how do these areas relate to the symptoms? (For example, the hippocampus is an area of the brain that is involved in the formation of memory. This area is usually affected in patients with Alzheimer's disease, which explains why the inability to convert short-term memory to long-term memory is a symptom of that disease.) What are some of the possible causes or theories regarding the development of this disease (e.g., genetic, chemical excess, neurotransmitter malfunction)? What are the latest developments in medical research to date on this disease? Have there been any recent breakthroughs? What are some of the treatments available as well as potential future treatments?

3. Write a 300-word essay on the information you found by answering these questions. Introduce the disease you're working on, explain what happens to people who have it (both what breaks down inside them and how they behave on the outside) and what might cure it. Remember to cite your resources.

Note(s) to colleagues

This project gives students the literal inside story on one of three major diseases of the brain and spinal cord and takes them inside the body and the world of medicine as doctors search for a cure.

Students don't have to use a lot of technical language and jargon; urge and help them to find ways to express what they find in clear, simple terms.

Explore the Brain and Spinal Cord
North Carolina State University's Guide to Citing Web Resources

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