Off With Their Heads!

‘What would happen if you didn’t have a head’? This isn’t a comment on the recent election fiasco, the introduction to a gruesome horror movie, or an angry storybook command from the Queen of Hearts.   Instead, it could be an illustration of an important approach in neuroscience research.

IMG_0151There are tales of survival for several minutes after beheading by guillotine, and headless chickens really can run around. The position of the cut is an important factor. The stem at the base of the brain governs essential processes such a breathing and heart beat. If this is intact then survival and even movement may be possible.

If strictly speaking a head is not entirely necessary, in its absence what would we be missing?  Even if nutrition could be got in another way, it would be difficult to obtain food as it would not be possible to locate or recognise it. You could forget about anything more sophisticated like communicating with others or making decisions.

Neuroscientists use a similar idea when trying to understand how the brain works, by looking at what happens when it goes wrong. An example is stroke patients with damage to one or more brain areas who have difficulty with some aspects of language but not others.

However, establishing the exact role of particular regions is more difficult than it might seem. One reason for this is that some recovery can happen as different pathways take over the function, demonstrating the flexibility of the brain’s connections and their importance in giving capacity to learn.

As few people or animals have survived very long without a head, less is known about its relationship with the rest of the body. This is an important topic to consider as the possibility of a full head transplant comes closer.


Demented Dancing

bbctimelineThis clip shows people with dementia learning to dance.  The ability to memorise new dance combinations remains while other kinds of memory are fading.  This fits with the psychological ‘declarative and procedural’ model of learning and memory.  Here, dancing could be considered an example of a ‘procedural skill’.  Such skills involve ordered sequences and are implicit and automatic, especially when learn well.  The clip illustrates how procedure uses a different memory system to the ability to remember information such as words and facts.  Training the abilities that are still strong is a promising approach for therapy.

My MSc Featured in the Guardian

On March 17th, 2017 the MSc I took in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of York, leading to my PhD, headlined in the Guardian Postgraduate section.  Read the article.  The_Guardian_logo_blue

My project for which I was awarded distinction differed form those described.  It looked at directional connectivity of brain regions examining the temporal dynamics of signal flow working towards understanding mechanisms of cognition (mental processing).  I used MEG which uses a magnetic field to read the electrical signalling form clouds of neurons firing.

As I was not new to the field having previously studied Psychology specialising in biological neuroscience I disagree with this article’s statement that neuroimaging techniques ‘bridge a gap between Psychology and Biology’.

Photo by me using Jordan Matter’s camera

From my point of view this gap has widened considerably in the last 15 years.  Instead, it is advances in spatial computational processing that take attempts to understand mind and brain into a third, virtual dimension.

The scale read by these machines has moved us further away from the actual matter of the brain.  This consists of networks billions of microscopic inter connected neurons using different neurotransmitters to relay specific messages.  Even the most sophisticated human neuroimaging is currently only capable of showing some diffuse overall patterns of their signal outputs.

While this gives new ways to visualise brain activity, it is light years away from revealing the detailed underlying physiological processes.  In my mind it is these and their link to human  experiences, which is essential for any claim to understand connection between mind and body.

The Offline Brain

nothinking Offline Brain was topic of a scientific discussion meeting held at the Royal Society International Centre Chicheley Hall, 30th and 31st January 2017.



Memory consolidation during sleep was a central topic and was considered across species.  A notoriously difficult topic to study, methods to study sleep were covered.

My research takes a different approach, looking at the learning outcomes across different sleep/wake intervals.  This allows participants to keep their normal sleep habits and environment and my provide a different perspective.

Key talks of interest for me were:

night-and-day-wallpaper-by-seph-the-zeth-on-deviantartDr Susanne Diekelman, University of Tubingen, Germany – audio

She considers how reactivation of memories through cues such as smells, have different effects during sleep and wake.  This suggests that sleep may serve to stabilise memories, while in wake they become more flexible, possibly to allow new information to be taken on board.



sleepingbirdsProfessor Daniel Margoliash, University of Chicago, USA – audio

This discusses how sleep seems to have a role for sequence learning helping birds to learn the songs the sing at particular times of day.   This could possibly be relevant to language learning.


therapyThere was discussion for clinical implications of understanding how to manipulate memories, for example with a view to helping victims of trauma.  This was seen as especially important if it could lead to treatments that are effective in situations where access to time consuming therapy is limited and a large amount of people may be affected by fear, for example during natural disasters or conflicts (wars).  Changing or disrupting sleep habits is certainly an accessible option.



While the intention to reduce the impact of bad memories is admirable,  it seems there is long way to go to understand how our memories, both good and bad, and the processes of remembering and forgetting truly influence us.

Summaries and audio for all the talks can be found here.


The Year of the Brain talks took place at Surrey University on 3rd November 2016.  Former hostage Terry Waite spoke about his experience being held hostage for five years, with Professor of Neuroscience, Sir Colin Blakemore.

Not only deprived of human contact, and nearly all forms of stimulation such as pens, paper and books, he was also chained to a radiator for nearly 24 hours a day.  He described how he coped by consciously practicing specific mental tasks such as recalling the name of his primary school class mates, regularly at set times each day.

Eventually he was able to connect with his fellows hostages on the other side of the wall using a tapping code.  Slowly and deliberately taps were given in sequence to indicate the order of a letter in the alphabet e.g A=1, z= 26 to convey key messages.

This testimony gives insight into the capacity of the inner world of the brain to survive the most hostile environment.


Rhythm of Light

BBC ‘In Our Time’ Circadian Rhythms – Listen to the Programme:

inourtimeBBC Radio 4 Programme ‘In Out Time’ with Melvyn Bragg discussed Circadian Rhythms.  Their relationship with sleep was a key theme.

Guests were:

Professor Russell Foster, University of Oxford

Professor Steve Jones, UCL

Professor Debra Skene, University of Surrey

The programme discussed the circadian rhythms and how they are regulated by individual cells in the body and coordinated by a ‘master clock’, in the hypothalamus of the brain, the suprachiasmatic nucleus.

Despite many possible factors, for most organisms, including humans, light is clearly the most important regulator for this cycle.  It provides the signal setting the central pacemaker to the external world, and giving our sense of space and time.

This means that the effect of time spent in artificial light has major implications for our sleep patterns.  Sleep is important to enable DNA repair possibly as a result of damage from ultraviolet light, and in humans plays a role in memory consolidation.

The sleep/wake cycle remains around 24 hours, regardless of other factors such as feeding.  This may have a social function, allowing activities to be undertaken in groups.  However, in the absence of light input, for example in some blond people, it will become disrupted so other cues have to be relied on.

In humans it is thought that the clock turns of ‘sleep pressure’, which gets stronger throughout the day. When it is an appropriate time the clocks allow a ‘sleep window’ to be opened.

Shift workers do not adjust very well over time and shift work is a risk factor for diseases such as cancer and metabolic disease.  Some patterns are worse than others.  A mismatch between social time and body clock time can be detrimental to physical and mental health, resulting in a kind of ‘social jet lag’.

‘We research how the environment influences rhythms and which changes are positive’, Professor Debra Skene

Unlike other biological reactions cellular circadian rhythms do not get faster with higher temperatures, so there must be some form of compensation.

‘The clocks keep ticking away, despite huge changes in external temperatures’, Professor Russell Foster

‘The cellular metabolic processes that regulate the circadian rhythm is  one of the best examples for understanding how genes govern behaviour’.  Professor Steve Jones









Sleeping Beauty Speaks

At an after show talk back at Saddlers Wells, London on 8th December 2015, Matthew Bourne spoke about his process of creating the show, accompanied by a sign language translator.  He described research into the original story and its time period and reflected on previous versions.  These ingredients combined with music, storytelling and staging, to bring the show to life.

‘One of the great things about the story is 100 years of sleep.  As there is no language in the performance, people didn’t always recognise this’. Matthew Bourne

sleeping beauty

Bourne faced a dilemma on how to bring the story alive.  There are often fairies in productions, so he added the ‘fairy godfather’.  If you are asked to believe in the fairies this can be extended to vampires. The music is deeper, it is a love story and the couple have to get to know each other again when she wakes up.

Like most fairy stories, the original is quite dark.  Aurora has two children, dawn and day.  The mother in law wants to eat them. This is never done in the performances and certainly not in the Disney version!

He likes to ‘let the music be the guide’, and has examined the score behind the original ballet, reintroducing some parts usually taken out.  He listened to the music to get the correct order as it suggests the parts where things happen, like the awakening.

Pre recorded music is used instead of an orchestra to make it affordable to tour.  This needs to be powerful as a lot of people will see it on TVs with surround sound, or in the cinema.  Dramatic sound effects were added.  He sees this as a piece of storytelling where the choreography has to be in charge.

‘It is dramatic, emotional and grand which is why we still love it so much’.

The original ballet was written in 1890, so he researched into the ‘golden summer’ of the Edwardian era, just before the First World War.   He travelled to Moscow to visit Trivkovsky’s house, which was a simple room overlooking a silver birch tree.

By contrast, the set is overwhelmingly grand, with scenes in a lavish gothic house based on social dancing of the day.

It takes 6 weeks to make it, but preparation will already be under way.  Dancers are trained for at least 3-4 years.  He like them to watch films to develop their body language and acting.  In the live show you can hear the breathing.

Travellators are used in staging the show, too give 2 levels and a gliding motion.  He said, ‘it’s not a one man band’.  The set designers also do their own research so they can contribute:

‘You can’t have a hierarchy of good ideas.  New people can also have ownership of them.  It is good when we can’t remember whose idea was what’.

When the show is running it is necessary to be flexible and adapt.  ‘In theatre you can change it and try new things every day’, so he remains questioning and gauges the audience reaction.

‘If you are a good audience you get a better show!’