As Chelsea Borta, PA-C, talks about the brain, she gets technical. And colorful.
She gives her sixth-grade students a laminated diagram of a brain. The kids take a ball of clay and roll it into a long skinny snake.
They wind the strand into the part of the brain marked “frontal lobe.”
“Squiggle it in there,” Borta says. “The reasons we do this is because our brains in real life are kind of squiggly.”
Colorful, squiggly clay and brain models come together in a vivid, hands-on lesson about brain function and concussions. It’s part of a five-week course on injury prevention taught by the pediatric neurosurgery program and the injury prevention team at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
On a recent morning at Mill Creek Middle School in Comstock Park, Michigan, Borta, a physician assistant in pediatric neurosurgery, leads the class focused on brain anatomy.
As the kids fit strands of clay into different parts of the brain on their diagrams, she talks through the functions of each lobe.
The frontal lobe takes charge of making decisions. The parietal lobe processes feelings of hot and cold, soft and smooth. The occipital lobe makes the eyes work. The cerebellum handles coordination of movements, such as balance and eye-hand coordination.
“The cerebellum is probably my favorite lobe,” she adds.
Once the students have created colorful, squiggly, clay brain models, Borta talks about concussions.
“A concussion is a traumatic brain injury,” she says. “It’s a blow that causes an impact to the brain.”
Although football gets attention as a cause of concussion, Borta says falls are the most common cause.
And she addresses a common myth: “You don’t need to lose consciousness for a concussion,” she says.
A person who gets a concussion might have a headache, feel dizzy or sluggish, have balance problems or experience sensitivity to light and sound. A student might notice problems concentrating on school work.
“A lot of concussions go unrecognized, and kids can get severely injured when those symptoms and signs are not recognized,” Borta says.
She encouraged students to tell someone if they experience a concussion―or if they see signs of a concussion in a friend or teammate.
“Our brains are really good at healing,” she says. “But if you don’t take the time to rest, you can get more serious symptoms. And sometimes those symptoms can become permanent.”
Borta shows images of brain scans, comparing a healthy brain to one that has suffered a traumatic brain injury.
“That big white blob is blood,” she says, pointing to an image showing a traumatic brain injury. “This is from somebody who fell off a bike and wasn’t wearing a helmet.
“You want to protect yourself. Always wear a helmet. Play smart.”
The class also covers the functions of the spinal cord and ways to identify a spinal cord injury.
ThinkFirst is a worldwide program developed by neurosurgeons that focuses on injury prevention education targeting the brain and spinal cord. The pediatric neurosurgery and injury prevention departments launched the ThinkFirst educational outreach in the fall.
This semester, the volunteer instructors took the class to two Rockford middle schools as well as Mill Creek Middle School. They hope to reach more schools in the future.
The five sessions cover brain anatomy, helmet use, home safety and distraction in and around vehicles. In the last session, the students meet people who have suffered injuries.
In addition to Borta, the instructors include Kim Hernden, an injury prevention specialist, and Casey Madura, MD, MPH, a pediatric neurosurgeon.
In the first class, Borta’s main goal is to raise awareness about concussions and the importance of getting treatment.
“It was fun,” says sixth-grader Yalitzy Campbell, as the class wraps up. “I learned a lot about the brain. I didn’t know anything about the brain except that it’s what helps you think.”
Hailee Scoles says she liked learning about the different parts of the brain and what they do.
Asked what lesson she takes away from the class, she says, “You don’t have to black out to have a concussion.”