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Building Realistic Neurons with Pipe Cleaners

Using pipe cleaners, students will explore and model authentic neuron shape and behavior.

About this activity:

Cells have all sorts of different shapes, functions, and sizes. Researchers on the Brain Science team at the Allen Institute work on uncovering, categorizing, and sharing information about the specialized cells in our brains called neurons. A popular activity to teach students about neurons is to build the traditional model of a neuron’s anatomy using pipe cleaners. This lesson expands on that activity by showing students how to model realistic versions of the excitatory and inhibitory neurons (the two top-level categories of neurons) that our team studies and connect them to form neural networks.

Audience: Middle school and early high school

Estimated lesson timeline: 15 minutes introduction, 25 minutes building models, 20 minutes for optional extension

Prior knowledge needed: Basic introduction to cell structure and function

Learning objectives: Students will be able to develop and use a model to describe phenomena and explore special structures within cells that are responsible for particular functions (NGSS MS-LS1-2)

Lesson materials: Slides, worksheet, scissors, pipe cleaners (5-6 per student per cell in 3 colors, we use red, blue, and black but any 3 colors will work.) Approximate cost of materials is ~$10 per class of 30 students.



The images and data that inspired this unit come from the Cell Types Database within the Allen Brain Map, a group of open datasets encompassing gene expression in the brain, visual behavior, properties of neurons, neural development, and more.

SciShots: A neuron’s love connection

1 min read | by Rachel Tompa/Allen Institute
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A morphological reconstruction of a VIP interneuron courtesy for the Allen Cell Types team over a gradient calcium image of VIP interneurons from the Allen Brain Observatory team.

Cell Types Database

Explore a related open dataset from the Allen Institute
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Science Programs at Allen Institute