Teaching neuroanatomy through a memorable Olympic race

Andrea E. Cavanna 1,2,3

1Department of Neuropsychiatry, BSMHFT and University of Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom; 2 School of Life and Health Sciences, Aston Brain Centre, Aston University, Birmingham, United Kingdom; 3 Sobell Department of Motor Neuroscience and Movement Disorders, Institute of Neurology and University College London, London, United Kingdom

DOI 10.36148/2284-0249-378


The year 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of a sporting event that is remembered as one of the greatest comebacks in Olympic sprinting: Pietro Mennea’s gold medal in the 200m race at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Mennea described his own performance as “a great psychological victory, more than physical”. In line with Mennea’s account, brain surgeon Giulio Maira dedicated a section of his newly published book (‘The brain is wider than the sky’, 2019) to the activity of Mennea’s brain throughout the race, focusing on the activity of 19 key neuroanatomical regions before, during, and after the race.


The English adaptation of Maira’s text was presented to postgraduate students at the end of a teaching session on neuroanatomy. The 39 occurrences of the 19 key neuroanatomical terms were removed, so that the students were provided with a text format suitable for an educational game. First, the students were introduced to the activity while watching a short videoclip of the thrilling 200 m Olympic final race. Then, the students were asked to fill the gaps in Maira’s narration by inserting the missing neuroanatomical terms, based on the contents of the neuroanatomy lecture. One point was assigned for each neuroanatomical term that was correctly identified, with scores ranging from 0 to 39.


A total of 16 psychiatry trainees actively participated in the educational game, which took about 30 minutes to complete. Student engagement was high, with a wide distribution of scores (mean 14.75; range 5-22). The feedback from the participants was overall positive: the educational value of the game was rated 8.50/10 (range 6-10) on a scale from 1 (lowest value) to 10 (highest value). All students recommended the addition of this activity to the postgraduate training curriculum, and reported that the game increased their interest in neuroanatomy.


The combination of a short, but memorable, video clip and an original educational game at the end of a neuroanatomy teaching session made the learning experience of psychiatry trainees more engaging and enjoyable. Linking neuroanatomical knowledge to the brain activity of an outstanding athlete, who recognised the role of his mind in his achievements, proved both educational and inspirational.

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