Campaigning for brain awareness in Sri Lanka

With the help of European Dana Alliance member Ann Kato and her husband,
researcher Gabor Kato, Sri Lanka was a late addition to the roster of new
countries hosting Brain Awareness Week activities in 2009. The Katos, along
with Ranil De Silva of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Nugegoda,
organized a four-hour program in basic neuroscience at the Sri Lanka Medical
Association in Colombo on Nov. 8 and a six-hour program on Nov. 10 at the Sri
Sumangala Girls’ College in Weligama. The events were such a success that De
Silva and the Katos are planning a second BAW event in Sri Lanka this year. (Brain Awareness Week 2010 is March

Gabor Kato at girls' college Gabor Kato at the Sri
Sumangala Girls’ College in Weligama

The Sri Lanka
Medical Association event included lectures on how the brain works, what
happens during brain disease and how to maintain health with food and exercise.
Students, teachers, parents, doctors and the general public listened with great
interest and asked many questions, especially about maintaining and improving
memory, Ann Kato said. Many people also wanted to discuss their sleep problems,
and it appeared that everyone had a family member or a friend with a brain
disorder such as multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s,
she added.

At the girls’
college, more than 400 high-school students, teachers, health-care workers and
members of the public spent nearly five hours learning about both the healthy
and diseased brains. De Silva translated the English lectures into Sinhalese,
as this audience did not have the same command of English as did the Colombo
group. In addition to lectures, the program included lighting of a traditional
oil lamp and two dance sessions by students, according to Ann Kato.

Girls' college processionProcession going to the auditorium at the Sri
Sumangala Girls’ College

There was room for
improvement. While the girls enjoyed the presentations, they asked for more
“cartoon-like” clips of how the brain functions. Two boys in the audience
wanted reassurance that the brain stays alive following death; perhaps they thought
the brain was immortal due to belief in reincarnation, Ann Kato said.

The Katos have
been supporting education efforts in Sri Lanka ever since they toured the
country after the devastation of the 2004 tsunami. They have repeatedly visited
the public girls’ college,
which serves 2,700 children from grades 3 to 12, to offer teaching assistance
and supplies. The school was severely damaged during the tsunami; thirteen students
died and more than half the children lost close members of their families.

While non-governmental
organizations helped rebuild most of the school’s buildings, it still lacks basic
items such as textbooks, pencils and notepads, as well as computers for the
technology lab. The Katos have collected and sent such supplies and offer university
scholarships for top students. At first, they paid out of pocket to fill urgent
needs; since then, they have received donations from friends and other
nonprofit groups and continue to look for sponsors for scholarships and other

Nicky Penttila

Photos courtesy Ann and Gabor Kato

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