Synapse is WashU’s premier neuroscience organization, but, although it may seem like it may be focused heavily on science and pre-med topics, I can say firsthand as a member of Synapse for three years that it is a student group with a plethora of opportunities for everyone to get involved in. For instance, I’ve been involved in Synapse’s community outreach and service with opportunities that do not require a heavy science background, including volunteer programs in cerebral palsy sports rehabilitation, trips to elementary and high schools in the immediate area to spark students’ STEM interests, and visits to the local assisted living home to help out with running activities for the older folks there. Apart from helping others, I’ve been able to educate myself on health-related issues, whether they be neuroscience-related or not. The annual MD panels, surgery screenings, and the physician shadowing program have allowed me to observe the fields of neurology and neurosurgery from a healthcare professional’s point of view. The surgery screenings were most captivating—one session, a neurosurgeon visited campus and shared a close-up video of himself operating to stop a brain hemorrhage and described the procedure in depth as it played. The most important thing I took away from the experience was not the medical knowledge, but the insight into an aspect of medicine that was foreign to the typical pre-med curriculum. Other events around campus such as Neuroweek, Synapse’s annual weeklong event with neuro-related activities around campus every day, involve a huge range of interests; for instance, I was able to learn about psychology as it relates to music and cognition.
One activity I participated in as a freshman was Synapse 101, an outreach program to elementary schools in the area to teach younger children about basic neuroscience concepts—nothing too complicated. We discussed optical illusions, neurons, reaction times, how the brain controls the body, and other simple topics. After visiting the kids multiple times, I began to pick up on the genuine excitement and willingness of the kids to learn—something the teacher had noted they struggled with in a classroom setting. As most of the elementary schools Synapse visits host populations marginalized in both race and socioeconomic status, I was able to fight these discrepancies firsthand through this program. Haley Crosby, one of the directors for another Synapse education program named Demo Days, feels similarly, noting, “I think demo days really gives the kids a chance to get excited about science. We encourage them to ask questions, even ones that we don’t yet know the answer to, and you get the feeling these [kids] will eventually be the scientists who go out and answer them.” Demo Days visits a different elementary school every week and volunteers can therefore reach a wider range of kids with a comparable set of curriculum. The role of education in public health should not be underestimated, and while educating kids doesn’t really involve the application of neuroscience directly, it’s fun to get involved in their education personally.
Then, as I began to get more involved with Synapse, I heard about the Cerebral Palsy Sports Rehabilitation programs, or CPSR for short. Cerebral palsy is a group of permanent movement disorders caused by the abnormal development of parts of the brain that control movement, balance, and posture, and this disease is normally diagnosed when issues with muscle weakness, tremors, and poor coordination develop throughout childhood. Children with cerebral palsy therefore require muscle and exercise rehabilitation to different degrees respective to their own abilities, which can best accomplished through playing sports. Jay Tian, the CPSR program director, elaborates: “It’s an opportunity for the kids to explore their full range of motion in an engaging and interesting setting. Giving these children an outlet for sports also allows student volunteers the chance to help local kids of varying mental and physical abilities. It’s really rewarding for our volunteers, but more importantly, CPSR is fun and effective for the kids.”
Being involved with Synapse also opened my eyes to issues in neuroscience that I hadn’t perceived before. Issues of the brain are some of the most controversial and ethically problematic because in many cases where the disease affects the brain, the patient may lose autonomy and the ability to make medical decisions for themselves, and for many other instances of degenerative diseases, there is no cure. Neurological degeneration affects many, and as I shadowed in the Barnes-Jewish neuro department, I saw many examples of these life-threatening diseases firsthand, some of which I cannot forget. One patient was a man with no voluntary control of one of his arms—it was stuck in a constant repetitive motion that would bring his hand to touch the back of his head and then lay down back at his side every couple of seconds. I saw instances of confabulation, where a patient experiences fabricated or distorted memories and involuntarily talks about them as if they really happened, because they cannot tell the difference. I saw a patient being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) as well. To me, ALS had just been represented by a water bucket challenge, but after I sat in on a physician discussing its symptoms and treatments with a patient and her family for hours, my outlook on the disease changed forever. This incurable disease would affect the patient for the rest of her life until her death, and being in the room during the some of the most vital moments of her life was a very emotional experience.
On a similar note, Synapse’s Sunrise on Clayton volunteering program at the assisted living facility of the same name in downtown Clayton provides opportunities to interact with those with neurological issues outside of a strictly clinical setting. Sunrise takes care of older folks with mild and moderate forms of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological issues that impede their daily lives. On a visit, I saw instances of past professors and others with similarly respectable occupations in their past lives who had fallen victim to the grasp neurological issues like poor coordination and muscle movement and to mental problems such as confabulations. Being there for these people and allowing them to have someone to talk to is important for their mental and emotional health. Sunrise lets volunteers help out in simple activities like ice cream socials, walking clubs, and baking sessions to encourage their population to stay active.
Through my ongoing experience with Synapse, I was able to learn about many neurologically-related health problems that I wasn’t previously aware of, and I was able to reach out to many areas of the St. Louis community that wouldn’t have been possible to do on my own. And as a regular writer for Frontiers too, I think both organizations’ goals go thoroughly hand-in-hand. It’s good to be able to both understand health in the community through the media and to go out and positively make an impact on it as well.