College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

Brain: It’s What’s for Dessert

By Jeremy Schwab

Britahny Baskin (CAS’13) and Catherine Conlin (CGS’11, CAS’13) baked this brain cake.

Alice Cronin-Golomb knows a great deal about the human brain. The findings of her research into vision problems resulting from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s have improved thousands of lives. She is also skilled at forming Jell-O into a realistic-looking brain. (The key, she says, is using a proper brain-shaped mold and a mixture of watermelon Jell-O and light evaporated skim milk, giving it a realistic gray color.)

How did Cronin-Golomb, a CAS psychology professor and director of the Vision & Cognition Laboratory and the Center for Clinical Biopsychology, come into such arcane culinary knowledge?

Back in 1996, her former student and current BU psychology lecturer Tracy Dunne (GRS’92, ’99) made one for Cronin-Golomb’s tenure party. She liked the idea so much that she started making her own from a recipe she found on the Internet. Two years ago, Cronin-Golomb decided to take her experimenting with brain-themed cooking to a new level, by involving her students.

It all started when she asked her two daughters for ideas to improve her Neuropsychology 338 course. She was looking for ways to build in more interaction in order to engage a generation used to learning differently from previous students, who were more tolerant of pure lecturing. Her then-15-year-old daughter, Lucy, asked, “Why don’t you let them bake brain cakes?”

Cronin-Golomb at first dismissed the whimsical idea. But then she thought more about it. Why not? The students could compete to make the best cake (or other edible creation) in the shape of a brain.

“The submissions would have to be anatomically accurate,” she reasoned. “When I suggested it, the students jumped on the idea. They wanted to do it.”

Last fall, more than 60 students on eight teams faced off in the third annual Edible Brain Competition in pursuit of three honors: most anatomically accurate, most aesthetically pleasing, and most complex brain. The excitement mounted as team after team presented its edibles and explained its creative process.

“We did have a little trouble,” admitted Catherine Conlin, a senior and neuroscience major who, along with partner and senior neuroscience and psychology double major Britahny Baskin, made two cakes: a rat brain and a human brain. “We lost a hemisphere at one point.”

Like a number of their competitors, Rachel Franklin and her teammate Rakhi Desai, both juniors majoring in neuroscience, used Rice Krispies Treats to fortify their cake and make it more moldable. Their creation, dubbed the Thanksgiving Thalamus, depicted one of the most important parts of the brain, responsible for our ability to taste. “I love the thalamus because every [sensory function] goes through it except olfactory,” Franklin said.

Other cakes featured a wide sampling of brains, including those with Pick’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease (both complete with pathological markers) and a horizontal slice showing the gustatory cortex (responsible for taste, along with the thalamus) and thalamic nucleus.

The course helps lay the foundation for many of the students’ future careers in psychology and neuroscience. “I try to take a fresh look at it every year, to find out ways to make my class more interesting and relevant,” said Cronin-Golomb. Judging from the enthusiasm in the room during the bake-off, she is doing a prize-winning job.