Back for I'm A Scientist - Stay At Home after 20 years away.
Bramford VCP; Gorselands Primary; Friends’ School Saffron Walden (top teacher: Martin J Hugall)
BSc Life Sciences (Polytechnic of Central London, now Westminster University; top teacher: David Groome).
Before my degree: Finance Clerk, Insurance; during my degree: composed background music for films and videos; after my degree: Health Care Assistant, St. Audry’s Hospital; PhD Psychology, University College London; Research Assistant, University of Wales, Bangor; Research Fellow/Senior Research Fellow, University College London.
Cognitive Neuroscientist and Senior Lecturer in Psychology
University of York
I am a dad in my fifties with two daughters aged 17 and 19. I am neuroscientist. This year I am working on a new test for Alzheimer’s Disease that I developed.
I participated in I’m A Scientist (normally it is a competition a bit like I’m A Celebrity…) ten years ago, coming second to Prof. Steven Curry. I’m back for I’m A Scientist, Stay At Home 2020, and I am happy to talk about my work (neuroscience and psychology, including VR, brain scanning and memory testing) or anything else that interests you about me or about science. My hobbies are music (I play guitar, sing and have a home recording studio) and video games (which I also use in my work). I also like to cook and program computers.
I investigate how the brain senses, understands, learns, remembers, thinks, and controls our actions and I teach university students about these topics.
I am especially interested in how we recognize places, how we find our way about in the world and why we sometimes get lost. Some of the parts of the brain most critical for wayfinding are also important for forming new memories. These areas begin to malfunction in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, and as you might expect, patients have problems with memory and sometimes get lost in familiar places. By understanding how the system works we may be able to contribute to the development of new methods for the diagnosis and treatment of this illness which currently affects over 850,000 people in the UK.
But how can we look inside the brain to find out what is going on? This was once very difficult, and scientists had to rely on studying the effects of brain injuries and careful experiments with patients undergoing brain surgery and with animals. But new imaging technologies developed over the last 30 years have made it possible to measure aspects of brain function in healthy people.
One of the most useful techniques I use is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI scanner uses a strong and precisely-controlled magnetic field, together with radio waves, to create a detailed 3D image of the brain, illustrated here with a slice through a scan of my own head. If you want to see a slightly more gruesome 3D version, with my head “cut open” click here.
MRI scans are very useful in themselves (e.g., doctors use them to diagnose and treat disease and brain injury), but functional MRI (fMRI) takes MRI to another level. It is a way of tuning the scanner to be sensitive to small changes in blood flow that occur when brain cells send signals to one another. The information can be gathered very quickly: a new image of the whole brain can be made every 2-3 seconds. The person inside the scanner has to keep very still, but they can do complex tasks (using a computer display and buttons for example). By comparing activity we see during different, carefully-designed tasks we can figure out how each part of the brain contributes to each one. For example, I used a modified video game (Quake 2 – see the picture below) to compare brain activity seen when people were finding their way around a virtual town with activity when they followed a fixed, familiar route – although on the surface these tasks are very similar, they seem to rely on different brain systems. The example here shows areas (in yellow) that are more active in more accurate navigators when finding new direct routes.
I also use computers to create models of brain function – these are programs that mimic the signalling of neurons and the connections between them (usually in a massively simplified way). We use models to make predictions that we can test and compare in experiments. They help us understand how the real brain might work, for example, how it could learn, store and represent different kinds of information.
New techniques like fMRI allow us to investigate the workings of the human brain in a way that was scarcely imaginable 30 years ago, but in my view we are only at the very beginning of an exciting journey of discovery. We already know that different parts of the brain do different things. We know in some detail what some of those things are, and we know something about the way that brain cells connect together and encode different types of information. The way the different functions are laid out doesn’t seem to be random – nearby parts do similar things. Perhaps there are some simple rules or principles that explain the layout. I’ve always been interested in how the brain is organized, and in the future I hope to do more work looking at how these patterns can be described and explained, and how they emerge.
The brain is sometimes described as the most complex object in the known universe, and it certainly seems very complex indeed now. But perhaps when we understand it better, it will seem simpler.
My Typical Day:
Experimenting, computing, reading, writing, teaching and learning, talking, listening and weighing up evidence.
Actually, my working days are very varied. Each day I do some of the following: scanning people’s brains, looking at brain scans and analyzing brain imaging data; devising new things for people to do in the scanner; programming computer models of brain function and running simulations; supervising PhD and Masters students, and helping them plan new experiments and make sense of their results; thinking through new experiments with colleagues and collaborators; reading and writing scientific papers, reviewing other scientists’ work and applying for money to support further research; giving presentations, lectures and seminars to students and other researchers; attending presentations by other scientists; marking students’ work and writing references for them; university administration, for example, deciding which applicants can join our MSc course.
What I'd do with the prize money:
My best idea so far is a “Scan Your Teacher” day…
This would be an opportunity for a school science club or class (maybe even your class) to spend the day at the University of York, learning about neuroimaging and planning an experiment. It would culminate in a chance to scan the teacher as she or he does the task they’ve designed. In order to make this happen we’d have to get ethical approval, which is needed for all experiments involving human participants to ensure no-one is harmed or upset. Normally this is only given once the experiment is finalized so it might not be possible to design and run the experiment on the same day, but maybe some of the planning could be done in advance. And of course, we couldn’t force the teacher to be scanned, so I would volunteer to be a substitute if they were unwilling or unable to be scanned. In any event, we’d analyze the data, and send pictures back to the school. I am not sure how far £500 would go, but perhaps we could afford to video the day, interviewing the students (they will probably be able to explain things in a more down to earth way than us) and then put the result on YouTube. I this would be a great way to help young people from around the world learn about fMRI.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
An open-minded sceptic
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
Dr Who, Star Trek, James Burke
What was your favourite subject at school?
What did you want to be after you left school?
I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do, and I was in danger of getting trapped into the first job that came along.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I won’t say I was never in trouble (I was a little bit cheeky and once got sent out of French for giggling uncontrollably at some graffiti someone had drawn in my textbook), but I was pretty sensible, at least until the sixth form (year 12/13) when I slightly let go…
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Run my own business
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
Fish and chips
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I’ve tried white-water rafting in the Alps, learning to make fire with a firebow, camping in a Tipi (all great fun), but for me the most fun is singing (band, choir, karaoke, Singstar, Beatles RockBand, and best of all singing harmonies with my brother Olly and with friends and family).
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
i) I’d like my children to grow up happy, healthy and old ii) I’d like enough money to cover the costs of my research for the rest of my career iii) I’d like a brain scanner that would reveal the activity of individual brain cells in a healthy person.
Tell us a joke.
Q: How many crustaceans are there in London? A: Three; King’s Crustacean, Charing Crustacean and St Pan Crustacean.