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Teaching Neuroscience: Reviving Neuroanatomy

Bianca Williams

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Bianca Williams

This resource has been adapted from the webinar  Teaching Neuroscience: Reviving Neuroanatomy, which took place April 13, 2022. Watch the full recording on Neuronline. 

Webinar Description:

Students often find neuroanatomy a daunting exercise of rote memorization in a dead language. This workshop is designed to enliven the teaching neuroanatomy. We recast the topic by extending it to the cellular and sub-cellular levels as well as animating it by learning to build a brain. We will rejuvenate pedagogical practices delivered both online and in person.

Q: How can I learn more on curriculum development for medical students?


Feel free to email Dr. White  for consultation (I’ve done a lot of this over the years): len.white@duke.edu


Q: What types of group exercises have you found most beneficial for enhancing student comprehension


  • Dr. White: have used team-based learning in all of my courses since 2009. I think the application phase of TBL – when designed well – leads to the very best comprehensive-enriching learning I have ever observed. The more co-dependent the teamwork, the better!
  • Dr. Fanselow,: I have a project in which small groups of students (3-4) are assigned a location in the nervous system where a hypothetical patient has a lesion (e.g., stroke, injury). Their task is to write a case study about the patient. At the end of the project, each group solves a case study written by a different group and presents their findings to the class. This project gets students thinking beyond just associating a set of symptoms with a cause (as in a typical case study exercise) and instead considering how to “teach” their peers by writing a case study. I also have short exercises in which each student is given an image of a stroke or other injury and they are asked to go around to other students in the class to find the two or three other images that are of the same injury. The images can be across different imaging modalities and in different planes. This is to help them integrate what they have learned about brain imaging, neuroanatomy, brain vasculature and injuries such as strokes. 
  • Dr. Nahmani: I incorporate “Differential Diagnosis” case studies centered on the topics we’re discussing where students need to solve a mystery CNS-centered ailment. Students report that they enjoy these and it encourages them to do their own research and synthesize concepts.  Another large project is a scaffolded ‘peer review’ of a archived preprint in BioRxiv - students pick a preprint (they are the ‘first’ to review it!) and write up a peer review (with intro section) with their group.  This preprint assignment works well to strengthen critical thinking skills.


Q: How to get students excited about learning neuroanatomy


  •  Dr. Fanselow,: I often start my courses by presenting an intriguing neurological case to the class and making that class period as interactive as possible. I give them a set of symptoms and ask them to suggest parts of the nervous system that might be involved and/or to suggest disorders/diseases the symptoms remind them of, based on what they may already have learned in other courses. Then, I introduce another batch of symptoms and ask them to contribute their thoughts again, and so on. There are two “tricks” to making this work: 1) choose cases that have a large number of seemingly unrelated symptoms (e.g. anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, frontotemporal dementia) so they can speculate about a wide range of symptoms, and 2) comment helpfully on every suggestion, whether it’s right or not. That is, encourage them to think without feeling they will get it “wrong”. I use shorter, more focused cases throughout the course as well, but starting the class by drawing on information they may have learned earlier and by presenting a medical case as a “mystery” usually gets their attention and draws them in. 


Q: How to teach Neuroanatomy with sheep brains since I don't have access to human brains?



Q: Dr. White, is athletics or sport studies applied in any of your neuroscience and humanities courses?     


 I certainly do discuss mild TBI and concussion in my courses and we often focus specifically on CTE reading primary literature on that topic. I did run a seminar with a humanist colleague who was keenly interested in notions around tact and proprioception; we settled on developing a seminar on the topic of “grace” that allowed us to explore it many meanings all centered on the idea that what unifies its meanings is the sensory and motor experience of the body, often in social relation to others. this seminar led us to interact with a local troupe of professional dancers who even allowed us to record their movements with video and accelerometers – of course, these 20-something professional dancers all knew about mirror motor neurons!


Q: My premed and graduate students seemed t be equally divided over my efforts to introduce humanities (visual art) to neuroanatomy— some love it, some hate it. Is that common?


My efforts have mostly been optional and so I have self-selected for those willing to give it a try with an open mind. I’m sure the “haters” were among those that opted to remain on the sidelines.


Q: How did you know that the spinules were clathrin coated?


Clathrin coats are ‘electron-dense’ and hence can be readily identified and quantitatively measured in serial electron microscope images of sufficient resolution.

Q: Dr. Fanselow, Do you share 3D printing files?


Not yet, but I am in the process of putting together some open education resources based on the models. These will  include the files for printing (including configurations that can be utilized with different types of 3D printing methods (resin, extrusion) when possible) and suggestions about using the models in a classroom setting. You are welcome to email me at fanselow@pitt.edu so I can notify you when these are made available. 


Q: When you assign literature to students, how do you assess learning? Or do you? Do they write papers or take tests on the literature they read?


Dr. Nahmani: In my neuro course, I do a scaffolded group preprint ‘peer review’ project.  Also run a course on understanding and critically analyzing Biomedical literature.  Assessment varies based on learning objectives. Happy to share materials.


Q: Dr. Fanselow, Thank you very much for your talk. Have you assesed the impact on working on 3D models on 3D internal representation of anatomycal structures?


No, I haven’t, yet. I’m still working out the best way to test this, but it is definitely part of the plan as the project evolves.  


Q: Dr. Fanselow, have the lesson plans developed by your honors students been implemented in the typical neuroanatomy course?


Not yet, though, I hope to do so during the upcoming school year. 


Q: Is it possible to access the syllabus for your undergraduate courses?  To help me get started on something like this?


  • If you write to me (Dr. White), I’d be happy to share my undergraduate course syllabi: len.white@duke.edu
  • Happy to share ivCURE syllabi/materials and/or Literature-based course syllabi: mnahmani@uw.edu
  • Dr. Casimo: the Allen Institute’s education materials don’t include full syllabi, but you can access our education resources at alleninstitute.org/learn.
  • Dr. Fanselow,: Similarly happy to share my syllabi: fanselow@pitt.edu


Q: Dr. White: what if your students have no drawing skills? ? Aso, have you incorporated any aspects from sociology into your courses?


Most of my students have no drawing/painting experience; although some do. I’m much more concerned for the “close reading” of the human brain and the reflection than I am with the artistic product. Nevertheless, in our Anatomy Drawing Program for first-year medical students, we do have a wonderful local artist who comes in and gives a brief drawing lesson so that the students obtain some skills they then get to exercise in our anatomy drawing activities.


Q: Coding seems to be a central theme, underscoring how critical is it for programs to begin to introduce these skills early in a curriculum. Any suggestions for programs that might have limited resources to do this?


  • Dr. Nahmani: How ‘critical’ this is depends on the learning objectives and outcomes of a particular program and/or course.  It could be argued that across biological disciplines, some baseline level of coding experience is integral for data acquisition and analysis.  For my (MN) courses, it is sufficient for students to understand how to download open data using Python (this can be taught in one class period using a scripted protocol).  One can expand on this (e.g., simple protocol learning) if the goals of the course/program include other data acquisition/analysis skills. I encourage faculty with limited time or coding experience to lean on their colleagues for help in setting up coding protocols for their students.  Happy to help with simple Python data acquisition protocols I discussed (mnahmani@uw.edu)
  • Dr. Casimo: many students will not need much if any coding in their career, but many others would benefit from coding experience they might not know they need, or might not have other opportunities to learn. Also, coding to learn how to code in a CS class is a very different learning objective from coding to analyze data in a neuroscience class. The Allen Institute’s open data resources are available through both web portal GUIs and programmatically, with code examples provided. Students along a spectrum of skill levels and interests can start or expand their coding skills in this context. For faculty working with limited resources, you don’t have to collect enough data in class - we provide it - and you can use the sample code to get you started.
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Bianca Williams


Helpful Links for Teaching Neuroscience: Reviving Neuroanatomy

This resource has been adapted from the webinar  Teaching Neuroscience: Reviving Neuroanatomy, which took place April 13, 2022. Watch the full recording on  Neuronline.  


  Resources for neuroanatomy teaching animations





Additional Links:

   The Human Brain:    http://www.anatomie-amsterdam.nl/sub_sites/anatomie-zenuwwerking/123_neuro/start.htm

   Mouse: https://atlas.brain-map.org/atlas?atlas=602630314

   Human: https://atlas.brain-map.org/atlas?atlas=265297126

   Connectivity Data:    https://alleninstitute.org/about/education-outreach/exploring-pathways/

   Blood Circulation in the Brain: https://www.neuroanatomy.ca/modules/CircleWillis/story.html



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