Let the mind games begin: Cerebral undergrads go head to head in Brain Bowl 2011

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(April 4, 2011)--At 7 p.m., Tuesday, April 5, undergraduate students from three Texas universities including UTSA will gather in a lecture hall at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio for an oddball tradition that has gained a devoted statewide following in its 14 years – Brain Bowl 2011. The event is free and open to the public.

The students, like hundreds before them, will be instructed to "Let the mind games begin!" With that, they will put their knowledge of neuroscience to the test in Brain Bowl 2011.

This year's meeting of the minds will be in Medical School Building Room 207L at the Health Science Center. More than a dozen students from The University of Texas at San Antonio, Baylor University and Texas A&M University will be peppered with questions from categories such as neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, and drugs and the brain.

Ahead of the competition, teams were given sample questions. Among them were:

  • Name the most prevalent inhibitory amino acid transmitter in the brain.
  • Sensory projections from the lateral geniculate nucleus terminate in what area of the cortex?
  • What ion is primarily responsible for depolarization of the axon during an action potential?

The handout describes these sample questions as "easier than most of the questions that will be asked."

The master of ceremonies will be David A. Morilak, professor of pharmacology, who created the Brain Bowl and has masterminded it ever since with assistance from a brain trust of faculty and staff from the Center for Biomedical Neurosciences at the UT Health Science Center.

Modeled on the 1960s quiz show "University Challenge," the Brain Bowl includes three rounds of short-answer questions -- each round more difficult than the last -- and a final complex challenge question.

The Brain Bowl is a labor of love for Morilak, who begins planning each year's competition almost six months beforehand. He corresponds one-on-one with competitors, getting to know them well enough to introduce them -- and perhaps tease them a little -- at the event, over which he presides with a comedian's patter and sense of timing.

Last year, he congratulated one student on her upcoming wedding and another for being her school's "fitness challenge sit-up champion," while confiding that a third "considers himself something of a late bloomer." Morilak also secures corporate sponsors, enlists a sometimes-raucous contingent of judges and scorekeepers and personally writes all 76 Brain Bowl questions.

Teams compete for the coveted Brain Bowl trophy, prizes and bragging rights. The competition also is intended as a way for students interested in neuroscience to establish relationships with Health Science Center faculty and graduate students. Several Brain Bowl competitors have gone on to study at the Health Science Center.

Over the years, many Texas universities have participated in the Brain Bowl, sometimes traveling hours for the honor. Past competitors include Southwestern University, St. Mary's University, Texas Lutheran University, Trinity University, University of Texas at Arlington and University of Texas at Austin.

This year's returning champion, Baylor, is the Brain Bowl's heavyweight, once going on a winning streak that stretched about a half-dozen years. Last year's victory re-established what Morilak described as "their interrupted era of Brain Bowl dominance." Baylor faces another past Brain Bowl champion, Texas A&M, as well as hometown favorite UTSA.

Without further ado, let the mind games begin!