Edmonton brain bee winner likens mysteries of grey matter to dark matter

‘Neurons that fire together, wire together,’ says Grade 12 student heading to national competition

By Alex Migdal, Edmonton Journal May 31, 2013

EDMONTON - Ask Gunvir Sidhu about the human brain and his neurons seem to fire at lightning speed.

The Grade 12 student’s initial shy demeanour dissolves when talk turns to the three-pound matter inside the skull. His voice picks up and he grows more boisterous, reciting facts with startling confidence.

“Which drugs trigger abnormal dopamine release in schizophrenics? That would be amphetamines because they promote the release of dopamine. What is the first neurotransmitter identified? That’s acetylcholine, right?”

Right. It’s no surprise, though, considering the Tempo School student is one of 13 students across the country — two from Alberta — competing this weekend in the sixth annual Canadian National Brain Bee. A brain bee? Think of the classic spelling bee setup — a line of students stepping up to a microphone and facing the peril of elimination — but with a focus on neuroscience: memory, stress, aging, genetics and other related topics.

Sidhu claimed a victory at the Edmonton regional competition in March, which involved memorizing a 50-page neuroscience textbook from front to back. While most people would get a headache from the painstaking process, Sidhu answered every question correctly.

How was the 18-year-old able to pull off such a feat?

“You just read it over and over again. You kind of say stuff out loud, you write it down. If you relate it to some neuroscience, it’s stored in the long-term memory part of your brain. That’s the subconscious passage storage memory.

“It’s called heavy learning. Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

It’s certainly the cognitive prowess that Sidhu will need when he squares off against the 12 regional winners — from grades 9 through 12 — at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., this weekend. Organized by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, competitors will have to complete a 50-minute exam, identify multiple structures in the brain and diagnose patients with fake neurological disorders. Judges will calculate the scores and the top three students will face off with a series of tough questions on the brain.

Although Sidhu says he’s “paranoid” about the other competitors, he admits there’s no point in fretting about the competition. As always, he ties his reasoning back to neuroscience: stress will shrink his hippocampus — where short-term memory is converted to long-term memory — and activate the amygdala, which deals with emotions.

“I’m going to get too emotional, so obviously I’m not going to remember all my facts, right? So I’ll just keep my calm and that will be the best way I can get as many questions right as I can.”

That cool confidence likely has to do with Sidhu studying the brain since he was 15, when he first took out a book on the topic at a library. And because of that long-standing affection, Sidhu doesn’t take much stock in winning the $1,500 prize and moving on in September to the International Brain Bee in Vienna, Austria.

“You do things in science for the pleasure of finding them out,” he says. “Maybe when I read the book, instead of just focusing on getting No. 1, I focus on all that it’s teaching me. It talks about a whole bunch of receptors, neurotransmitters, things that I’ve never even heard about before.”

Sidhu, who’s set to the graduate in two weeks, has scored an internship this summer in a neuroscience laboratory and will be pursuing an honours degree in neuroscience this fall at the University of Alberta.

But despite his achievements, Sidhu somehow finds a way to turn the conversation back to grey matter, and all its mysteries.

“One person compared it to the dark matter in space. The difference is that dark matter is trillions of years away in space. But the brain is inside a skull. You don’t know that much about the brain, just like you don’t know about dark matter. So there’s a ton to learn from stuff like this.”