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Marquette class provides in-depth brain dissection opportunity

Posted at 6:57 AM, Jul 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-24 08:01:42-04

A three-day class at Marquette gave students a hands-on chance to better understand the human brain, literally.

The class is taught by Dr. William Cullinan, Dean of the College of Health Sciences and Director of the Integrative Neuroscience Research Center.

Cullinan said the 97 people who attended this year had the chance to participate in the blunt dissection of a human brain.

The class is now in its 22nd year and has "really found a niche with people who are neuropsychologists, educators, physicians and others who want to understand the brain and the three dimensions of it in a special way," Cullinan said.

Historically, some of the other attendees have been teachers or lawyers.

Cullinan said blunt dissection involves pulling back the layers of the brain with a blunt instrument, rather than simply slicing through it and cutting it into pieces.

Blunt dissection provides a comprehensive view of the fiber pathways within the brain that allow neurons to communicate with one another.

"This is something that's sort of a lost art," Cullinan said. "It's fallen out of favor because it takes so much time to do. It isn't even part of a medical school curriculum anymore, although it used to be in the 1980's."

Cullinan said Marquette partners with a local anatomical gift registry to obtain the brains used in the dissections each summer.

He said Marquette's faculty, and the students, all have great respect for the donors.

"We don't take this casually," Cullinan said. "This is really an amazing opportunity."

"In this case, the brains provide such a powerful learning experience. People are here for the laboratory experience and the ability to dissect this human brain specimen," he said.

Jim Seward, a neuropsychologist from Arizona, said the blunt dissection opportunity is why he traveled to Milwaukee for the class.

"I review the findings of examinations, and I read professional literature, but this will put it all into context for me," Seward said. "Lectures are valuable, but this hands-on learning opportunity is important too."

Emily Elfreich, a nurse practitioner at a level one trauma center hospital in Florida, said she hoped the blunt dissection course would help her better-understand her patients.

"Medical training, for medical doctors, they have this opportunity, but nurse practitioners do not," Elfreich said. "So that's why I came here. It's extremely important for my job, and for learning."

Cullinan said that's the goal of the class.

"It brings the brain into sharper focus," Cullinan said. "So there's a sense of knowing where things should be, and then there's visualizing it and putting your hands on it. That's key to understanding the three-dimensionality of the pathways deep in the brain."