Note: This activity deals with advanced, potentially sensitive topics. We advise it be reserved for students in middle school or higher grades. No matter the age of your students, you may want to check in with them to discuss the topic and make sure everyone is interested in completing the activity before you begin.
In this activity, students will be doing a basic simulation of brain surgery to remove a tumor. Physical removal of a brain tumor is called surgical resection. This is often the main method of treatment for brain tumors. It is important for doctors to be able to tell the difference between tumor and healthy tissue as completeness of tumor removal gives the patient a better chance of survival.
Recent advances in fluorescent labeling have allowed doctors to improve completeness of tumor removal. Fluorescent dyes absorb light of a particular wavelength and then emit or give off a light of longer wavelength. Fluorescence can be seen during surgery with special optical equipment. Additionally, these dyes can be engineered to accumulate and bind specifically to tumor tissue. Because the dyes are present specifically in the tumor tissue, only the tumor will fluoresce.
For this activity, the tumors will be made of tonic water which contains quinine. The quinine in the tumor absorbs UV light and emits a blue light that can be seen by the human eye. This makes it easier to identify what is tumor and what is healthy tissue. Students will try removing tumors both with and without the help of a black light. Although the tumor will be removed without a black light, the tumor will still contain quinine which will allow students to evaluate completeness of tumor removal after they are finished.
If prep time or funds are lacking, the activity can be modified by using smaller brain molds. Students can also work in groups or can take turns as a class identifying tissue that should be removed.
Overall, this activity provides a fun way to learn about brain anatomy and brain tumors. It can also excite students for a possible future in the medical field.
Depending on how many brain molds are available to make multiple brains at the same time, it will take between two to eight hours prior to the activity to create all the brains. In class, the activity may take an additional one to two hours.
*Whichever mold you end up getting can also be used to create the tumor in advance, trimming it down to a good tumor size before creating the brain.
**The black light used for this activity cannot be a torch/flashlight style light. These produce a light that is too focused/intense and will make the normal brain appear as if it is also fluorescing.
Addional Materials Needed
Have 2-4 students per group and supply each group with the two halves of a brain. The students should work together to remove the tumor. If time permits, have the groups present to the class at the end of the activity. Have them describe what symptoms their patient initially had, and show how much of the tumor they were able to remove. They should also present the parts of the brain the tumor touched.
In the extension activity, have the students also describe the post-operative scenario and explain what part of the brain they think was injured based off of the patient’s symptoms.
• Turn off the lights when students are using the black lights in order to increase contrast between healthy and tumor tissue.
Recipe yields: 1 brain
Making the tumor
*This amount should be enough for two or more tumors depending on the size of the tumor mold
Making the brain
Alternative steps for small brains (yields 4 small brains):
*We recommend using whole brains rather than half brains if using the smaller mold.
Common Core Standards
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.9-10.3. Follow precisely a complex multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks, attending to special cases or exceptions defined in the text.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.9-10.9. By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend science/technical texts in the grades 9-10 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
Next Generation Science Standards
HS Structure and Function
HS-LS1-2. Develop and use a model to illustrate the hierarchical organization of interacting systems that provide specific functions within multicellular organisms.
Eugene Chung. (2015, April 22). Brain Tumor Activity: For Teachers. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved August 8, 2022 from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/experiments/cutting-out-brain-tumors/for-teachers
Eugene Chung. "Brain Tumor Activity: For Teachers". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 22 April, 2015. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/experiments/cutting-out-brain-tumors/for-teachers
Eugene Chung. "Brain Tumor Activity: For Teachers". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 22 Apr 2015. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 8 Aug 2022. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/experiments/cutting-out-brain-tumors/for-teachers