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Third place winner Jenna Bryfonski
Saratoga Springs High School

Neurology - It's Personal

"Don't worry about what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive." - Howard Thurman

I have always been fascinated with the human brain. To me, the brain is like that giant bundle of wires crammed behind your television; a knot of electrical passageways that makes a complex system of devices function properly. No matter how hard you try to untangle or organize that giant mess, it always remains just as snarled – but everything still seems to work, miraculously.

Frustration naturally arises when technology decides not to cooperate. Sometimes, wires just stop working, with no explainable reason why, and electrical messages are lost within that twisted mess... and each piece of equipment slowly loses its complex functions, until the system is reduced to producing mere static and white noise.

Failing wires and lost signals don't even begin to describe the corrosive powers of the human brain - powers that my aunt Sandy is currently battling. She was recently diagnosed with the neurological degenerative condition, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The cryptic, perplexing genes that cause this progressive deterioration attack nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing muscle atrophy and ultimately paralysis. Little is known about the genetic causes of ALS, and room for much needed research exists in the future.

I was always intrigued by strange genetic neurological disorders - like those of my favorite television show, Mystery Diagnosis – but watching my own family member slowly lose her ability to walk or even pick up a telephone has certainly affected me on a deeper, more personal level. Watching her struggle to raise a forkful of food into her mouth made me realize the extent of how much the disease has trapped her in a withering shell of a body – a once active physique that skied down the banks of Killington peak and walked along the beaches of Cape Cod in its most operative state.

Now 64, Sandy has to be carried up the stairs and into and out of cars by her baby brother – my father. The pain and frustration is almost tangible in my father; a man who rarely exhibits any sign of weakness. I religiously look away during such processes, for fear of my own emotional weakness. I find it hard not to remember the times she would go out in the snow to do her morning Tai Chi... We all used to tease her for it, but looking back; I remember seeing the strength and control of her mind and figure, now lost to the uncontrollable malignant forces of ALS.

The mysterious degeneration of Sandy's motor neurons from ALS has certainly adversely stimulated a greater desire for my own personal accomplishment in the neurological field. Watching a loved one become painlessly trapped in a shell of a once active body, I wish to research and hopefully one day reverse the surprisingly venomous capabilities of the mess of wires we call the human brain.