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“Superhero Physiology: the Case for Captain America”

Using pop icons in lesson plans makes physiological concepts fun for students

Bethesda, Md. (February 28, 2017)—A common challenge to educators across all disciplines is making learning interesting for students. Researchers from Mississippi State University outline a compelling strategy to teach physiology to undergraduate students: using real physiological concepts to explain some of the extreme physical transformations of the fictional superhero Captain America. The article is published in Advances in Physiology Education.

Captain America was once a young man named Steve Rogers with a below-average body type and normal abilities. After receiving a mysterious injection, Rogers underwent “extensive physical and physiological changes, all of which are unachievable even with years of intense exercise training.” The research team provides examples of real changes that actually can occur in the body to explain how Captain America could have turned into a superhero of extreme endurance and power, including:

  • Deactivated muscle-specific nuclear receptor corepressor 1 (NCoR1) protein. Mouse studies show that a lack of NCoR1 leads to increased muscle mass and endurance.
  • Altered gene expression regulating muscle growth, making the muscles larger.
  • Extreme metabolic efficiency. Captain America is rarely shown eating and does not seem to tire out, which means he does not need much fuel for his body to function at high levels.
  • A combination of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers, allowing Captain America to have superhuman muscle strength, endurance and power.

The goal in discussing actual physiological characteristics alongside the fantastical feats of a fictional character is “to use the pop icon as a fun way to encourage critical thinking and spark in-class discussions,” wrote the researchers. “The numbers and concepts of science being taught may potentially have a far greater impact when pop icons such as Captain America are used in the classroom. Suddenly, the concepts are not so dry, and the numbers can be rather compelling and entertaining.”

Read the full article, “Superhero physiology: the case for Captain America,” published in Advances in Physiology Education.

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Physiology is the study of how molecules, cells, tissues and organs function in health and disease. Established in 1887, the American Physiological Society (APS) was the first U.S. society in the biomedical sciences field. The Society represents more than 10,500 members and publishes 15 peer-reviewed journals with a worldwide readership.