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Marian Diamond’s love for the brain is infectious

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UC Berkeley professor emeritus Marian Diamond is the subject of a charming new documentary. (Courtesy Luna Productions)

It’s hard to resist an octogenarian lady scientist who carries a human brain around in a hat box.

“My Love Affair with the Brain: The Life & Science of Dr. Marian Diamond,” a new documentary airing this week on KQED Channel 9, tells the remarkable story of the retired University of California, Berkeley anatomy professor whose research broke ground, and whose lessons inspired thousands.

Describing their project as “part biography, part scientific adventure story and part inspirational tale,” Berkeley filmmakers Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg (who made the movie over five years) call Diamond a “brain whisperer.”

The entertaining documentary touches on her work in the 1960s, which revealed, for the first time, connections between rats’ brain size and their environments (those in “enriched” settings, in cages with companions and toys were found to have larger cerebral cortexes than those who were deprived).

Further studies indicated that humans have control over their own brain function, with the charming Diamond, who is interviewed throughout the film, advising with cheer: “Use it or lose it.”

Other scenes cover her research on Einstein’s brain — she was able to obtain sugar cube-size pieces of it — that found that the man who discovered the theory of relativity had more glial cells (support cells in neurons) than the average person.

Her fans include poor Cambodian orphans she helped by putting into practice what she learned about “enriched” environments; their achievements increased, having been provided a better diet as well as lessons in a positive setting.

Delightfully, the filmmakers even talk about love. In one sequence, Diamond discusses how love and nurturing aid the brain, as she pets a rat, and in other scenes, she and her husband Arne Scheibel, a retired UCLA professor of neurobiology and psychiatry, share thoughts about their romance and long-distance relationship.

In old-fashioned lectures, the impeccably coiffed Diamond uses chalk on a blackboard and engages students with charm and humor; these anatomy classes, on YouTube, have a following of more than 1 million viewers.

New York University professor of neural science and psychology Wendy Suzuki, another captivated follower, describes how “rock star” Diamond’s class affected her own career, and how she has her own hat box holding a brain.

My Love Affair with the Brain: The Life & Science of Dr. Marian Diamond
Starring Marian Diamond, Arne Scheibel
Directed by Catherine Ryan, Gary Weimberg
Not rated
Running time 1 hour, 5 minutes
Note: The film screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 22 and 2 a.m. Thursday, March 23 on KQED 9.

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