Bright Brains online

In addition to the print editions of Bright Brains, here you can find extended online content. All articles are by and for our student and early-career members.

If you’re interested in contributing to Bright Brains online or in print, please email Jayanthiny Kangatharan (


  1. Autumn 2018
  2. Summer 2018
  3. Spring 2018
  4. Autumn 2017
  5. Summer 2017
  6. Spring 2017
  7. Autumn 2016
  8. Summer 2016
  9. Spring 2016

Autumn 2018

Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

Caroline Casey, Rachel Coneys, Daisy Hendley, Marta Huelin Gorriz, Pablo Izquierdo Garrudo, Oriol Pavo?n Arocas, Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD, Tiffany, Quinn, Ellena Sanderson, Fran van Heusden

  1. Neuroinflammation in Alzheimer's disease
  2. FENS 2018 Conference
  3. From colloids to cords and beyond
  4. Neural processes underlying second language acquisition

1. Neuroinflammation in Alzheimer's disease

By Edward Wickstead, PhD student in Neuroscience, Queen Mary University of London

For decades, amyloid beta (Aβ) and tau aggregates have been the primary neuropathological hallmarks associated with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and its clinical manifestations. However, some recent discrepancies have reignited the debate of whether Aβ or tau alone are enough to cause the extensive neuronal death seen at late stages of the disease. Today, considerable evidence supports the notion that neuroinflammation plays a role in the progression of AD (1,2), and two recent studies have looked into the role of the immune system in AD.


Macrophages to save the day?

For many years, excessive immune responses have been thought to exacerbate AD pathology (3), with immune cells infiltrating the brain leading to pathological inflammation and neuronal death. As a result, the search for treatments has often sought the suppression of the immune response. However, research lead by Dr Michal Schwartz at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and presented at the FENS Forum of Neuroscience in Berlin (4) might change this trend. By using a specific antibody to activate the immune system they managed to drive peripheral macrophages into the brain to digest the damaged tissue. The results, yet to be published, further showed that boosting immune activity improves memory and cognition in these mice, alleviating the progressive symptoms of AD. Their next steps will focus on optimising the antibody’s properties and adapting the treatment regime to move on to the next stage: a clinical trial with human participants.


Aspirin: Amyloid’s newest enemy?

Aspirin is one of the most widely-used medications in the world. It stimulates the production of transcription factor EB (TFEB), a known master regulator of lysosomal biogenesis. This may have relevance for AD since lysosomes are the intracellular compartments where products taken up by cells (including Aβ) can be degraded. In fact, in a new study (5), researchers at Rush University Medical Center (Illinois, USA) orally administered a low-dose of aspirin to an AD mouse model for one month, before evaluating amyloid plaque deposition in the brain regions most affected by AD. They suggest that aspirin-induced TFEB upregulation occurs via the activation of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha (PPARα), and conclude that oral administration of low-dose aspirin successfully alleviates amyloid plaque pathology in both male and female mice, with this effect being PPARα-dependent. Their research highlights a new function of aspirin in stimulating lysosomal biogenesis through PPARα, suggest possible benefits of aspirin in reducing amyloid pathology in AD, and provides further hope that modulating the immune system could be utilised in the fight against AD.


  1. Heneka MT, et al. (2015) Neuroinflammation in Alzheimer’s disease. Lancet Neurol 14(4):388-405.
  2. Latta CH, et al. (2015) Neuroinflammation in Alzheimer’s disease; A source of heterogeneity and target for personalized therapy. Neuroscience 302:103-111.
  3. Heppner FL, et al. (2015) Immune attack: the role of inflammation in Alzheimer’s disease. Nat Rev Neurosci 16(6):358-72.
  4. FENS Press Office (2018) Press Release: Immune system reveals new ways to treat brain disease and pain. Available at [Accessed 23rd July 2018].
  5. Chandra S, et al. (2018) Aspirin induces lysosomal biogenesis and attenuates amyloid plaque pathology in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease via PPARα. J Neurosci 0054:18.


2. FENS 2018 Conference

By Anna Cranston, PhD student in Neuroscience, University of Aberdeen

The largest European gathering of neuroscientists took place in July 2018 at the 11th FENS (Federation of European Neuroscience Societies) conference, this year held in Berlin, Germany. Over 23,000 neuroscientists from across 32 European countries gathered for five days, with a shared goal of sharing advances in neuroscience research and education. An event of this scale does definitely not disappoint in terms of quality and quantity of research, with over 56 symposia organised across eight separate sessions. Symposia topics ranged from pre- and post-synaptic alterations in late-stage Parkinson’s disease, neural circuits for feeding behaviours and oral memory formation, to utilising CRISPR/ Cas9 gene editing as a treatment for neurological disorders. The conference also included a number of special interest talks, which covered issues such as reproducibility of scientific results and the use of animals in research, as well as many networking events.

The conference opened with the Fred Kavli Lecture, presented by Tom Insel of Palo Alto, USA, who gave a talk on behavioural analysis through digital phenotyping. Professor Insel proposed new ideas on behavioural healthcare with an emphasis on redefining how healthcare providers will utilise technology to diagnose and manage brain and mental health disorders. One of the highlights of the conference was the world-renowned Brain Prize Lecture. In 2017 the prestigious prize was awarded to Peter Dayan, Ray Dolan and Wolfram Schultz for their multidisciplinary analysis of learning and reward mechanisms in the brain, and the implications of their findings for our understanding of human behaviours and diseases, such as gambling, drug addiction, compulsive behaviour and schizophrenia.

Another highlight was the European Research Area Networks Neuron Excellent Paper in Neuroscience Award, presented this year to Cristina Garci?a Ca?ceres of the Helmholtz Zentrum Mu?nchen, Germany. Dr Ca?ceres presented her research on how astrocytes respond to the metabolism- regulating hormone insulin, in addition to leptin. This allows astrocytes to contribute to the control of sugar transport into the brain, suggesting that glucose transport is an active rather than a passive process. The FENS Forum comprised many other useful events for early-career researchers and PhD students, including poster sessions, PhD thesis prizes, evening networking events and socials, and an interesting talk on alternative careers for neuroscientists, thereby guaranteeing the event was a great success for scientists across all disciplines and career stages.


FENS 2018 conference. Photo Credit: FENS / KENES.


3. From Colloids to cords and beyond

By Ryan Stanyard, MSc student in Neurosciences, King's College London

Emerging bioscience technologies are seeking to address the limited nerve regeneration evident in pathologies such as Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) utilising a class of biomaterials known as hydrogels. ‘Hydrogels’ or ‘scaffolds’ are comprised of between 95-99% water (hence ‘hydro’), with constituents including natural polymers such as collagen, hyaluronic acid or chitosan or synthetic polymers such as poly-ethylene glycol or poly-lactic acid (3, 4). Due to their elastic and versatile nature, hydrogels were initially used to build early colloidal gels made with inorganic salts (5).

Biomaterial approaches to enhancing CNS repair have ranged from the use of mesoporous silicon rods to deliver drugs to injured tissues through to scaffolding neural stem cell (NSC) growth (1, 2), composed of various polymers to act as guidance scaffolds for nerve regeneration.

In the decades to come, these constructs have been refined for use in nerve regeneration and repair research. Many hydrogel materials are hybrids, taking advantage of low-toxicity, biocompatible biological substrates and tuneable, mass-producible synthetic substrates.

Figure 1. NSC’s in Hydrogel Mesh
NSC’s can be encapsulated in the hydrogel mesh, alongside therapeutic molecules such as interferon in the example above, or neurotrophins or other molecules of interest.  Photo credit: Li et al., (2018).

Hybrid gels are useful in incorporating synthetic chains for payload release; releasing therapeutic molecules as the hydrogel breaks down in vivo over time, enhancing nerve growth, and potentially restoring a degree of function (8). This release principles also works for the release of NSC’s, which can be incorporated as part of pre-set hydrogel grafts (Figure 1) which are surgically implanted onto damaged tissue, or utilised as part of injectable gel suspensions (3), gelating in response to physiological pH or temperature. As these gels degrade, the cells are released and begin to develop from early neurosphere into neural cell types including neurons (Figure 2).

The stiffness of a hydrogel determines the cell types (or ‘payload’) it can support, with stiffer gels being more conducive to lineages such as astrocytes, whilst softer scaffolds are more suited to culturing more fragile cell types, such as neurons (6, 7). It is worth noting that NSC scaffold cultures contain relative proportions of neurons, astrocytes and oligodendrocytes (and other cell types) and the stiffness simply determines the relative cell-type proportions.

Whilst human clinical trials are still relatively distant, early in vivo research is showing efficacy in spinal cord repair in rodent SCI models (9). These technologies are being combined with other emerging technologies, such as 3-D printing, to create commercially-viable, tailored implants with potential for in vivo repair (10, 11). If successful, these technologies may offer a cost-effective means of treating SCI and other CNS pathologies.

Figure 2. Hydrogels for NSC transplantation
NSC’s incorporated into hydrogels can differentiate and grow into healthy neuronal populations, as indicated by co-localised nuclear (Hoescht) and neurofilament staining (β-tubulin). Photo credit: Stanyard, Keele University (2017).


1. Kim, J., Li, W., Choi, Y., Lewin, S., Verbeke, C., Dranoff, G. and Mooney, D. (2014). Injectable, spontaneously assembling, inorganic scaffolds modulate immune cells in vivo and increase vaccine efficacy. Nature Biotechnology, 33(1), pp.64-72.

2. Li, H., Zheng, J., Wang, H., Becker, M. and Leipzig, N. (2018). Neural stem cell encapsulation and differentiation in strain promoted crosslinked polyethylene glycol-based hydrogels. Journal of Biomaterials Applications, 32(9), pp.1222-1230.

3. Pakulska, M., Ballios, B. and Shoichet, M. (2012). Injectable hydrogels for central nervous system therapy. Biomedical Materials, 7(2), p.024101.

4. Shoichet, M. (2010). Polymer Scaffolds for Biomaterials Applications. Macromolecules, 43(2), pp.581-591.

5. Chirani, N., Yahia, L., Gritsch, L., Motta, F., Chirani, S. and Faré, S. (2015). History and Applications of Hydrogels. Journal of Biomedical Sciences, 4(2), pp.1-23.

6. Engler, A., Sen, S., Sweeney, H. and Discher, D. (2006). Matrix Elasticity Directs Stem Cell Lineage Specification. Cell, 126(4), pp.677-689.

7. Nalam, P., Gosvami, N., Caporizzo, M., Composto, R. and Carpick, R. (2015). Nano-rheology of hydrogels using direct drive force modulation atomic force microscopy. Soft Matter, 11(41), pp.8165-8178.

8. Mauri, E., Sacchetti, A., Vicario, N., Peruzzotti-Jametti, L., Rossi, F. and Pluchino, S. (2018). Evaluation of RGD functionalization in hybrid hydrogels as 3D neural stem cell culture systems. Biomaterials Science, 6(3), pp.501-510.

9. Hong, L., Kim, Y., Park, H., Hwang, D., Cui, Y., Lee, E., Yahn, S., Lee, J., Song, S. and Kim, B. (2017). An injectable hydrogel enhances tissue repair after spinal cord injury by promoting extracellular matrix remodelling. Nature Communications, 8(533), pp.1-14.

10. Gou, M., Qu, X., Zhu, W., Xiang, M., Yang, J., Zhang, K., Wei, Y. and Chen, S. (2014).
Bio-inspired detoxification using 3D-printed hydrogel nanocomposites. Nature Communications, 5, pp.1-9.

11. Chen, M., Zhang, Y. and Zhang, L. (2017). Fabrication and characterization of a 3D bioprinted nanoparticle-hydrogel hybrid device for biomimetic detoxification. Nanoscale, 9(38), pp.14506-14511.


4. Neural processes underlying second language (L2) acquisition

By Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Harvard University

Language. It is the tool that we use to solve problems and advance culture through communicating knowledge, teaching and learning from others. What happens when we first learn a language? Early in life we appear to be able to differentiate between virtually all phonetic units in the languages of the world (1).

However, around the age of nine months, the infant brain adjusts to the continual exposure of the native language (L1) (2). Furthermore, after puberty there is an obvious decrease in the ability of an individual to acquire native-like proficiency of a second language (L2). The continuous process of neural commitment to the L1-specific speech patterns experienced early in life could account for the corresponding decrease in the ability to acquire another language later on in life (3).

For example, cross-sectional studies showed that while 6-8 months old English infants were able to distinguish between two Hindi consonant sounds to the same level as native Hindi adults, 10-12 months old infants had difficulty with this task. This result was also replicated when assessing vowel sounds (4, 5).

Does this mean that learning L2 later in life will limit your ability to attain native-like proficiency, and become fluent? Luckily, the answer appears to be no! Published findings found that some individuals who started learning L2 later in life reached native fluency. However, the alternative was also true; learning L2 early in life did not guarantee fluency (6, 7, 8). For example, a study, which compared the grammatical judgment of native English speakers, with that of Vietnamese people who had learned English early in life, found no difference in performance between groups (9). Despite this, the Vietnamese early learners of English also appeared to retain their native accent, which could thus be argued as not reaching native-like proficiency in the English language. One can therefore say that early exposure to a second language will not guarantee native-like proficiency.

In another study, native English speakers were asked to rate the English accent of speech samples that had been produced by Dutch individuals who started learning English around 12 years of age (8). Approximately half of the Dutch cohort was mistaken for native English speakers, suggesting that it is possible for late L2 learners to attain pronunciation akin to native speakers. This finding was further supported by a study in which individuals from all over the world (Russia, Bulgaria, USA to name a few) were assessed on their Hebrew accent. The study found that the age at which individuals learnt L2 (in this case Hebrew) was not directly correlated to perceived native-like accent (10). Thus, an early start in learning L2 is not a prerequisite in acquiring unaccented speech.

There is also physiological evidence, which has been published to support this concept. A group of adult participants were trained on an artificial language, and exhibited a similar pattern of brain activity to that observed in native speakers when they process their first language (11). Furthermore, there appeared to be little difference in brain activity when a syntactic violation, or language error, was processed. Both groups exhibited a double peak of brain activity, termed early negativity and late positivity (N400 and P600), when a syntactic error was encountered. Essentially, the automatic detection and correction of such errors during language processing, is similar between native speakers and L2 individuals.

This indicates that both early and late learners of a language make use of the same brain mechanisms during the processing of language. Further supporting evidence is provided by other event-related brain-potential (ERP) studies. It has been shown that both the brain areas activated (15), and ERP patterns evoked in fluent L2 users, are largely observed in native speakers as well (12, 13). Difference in these parameters were revealed, however, when native and non-proficient speakers’ processing was compared (14, 16).

The evidence that we retain our ability to learn speech in different languages over the course of life is good news for all of us who recently thought of taking up a second language. No matter your age, or which language you are hoping to learn, you can become a fluent L2 speaker if the ideal learning environment is created. Thus, when you train yourself intensively in perceiving and producing the sounds of the second language, show the motivation and enthusiasm to sound native-like, along with massive L2 exposure, it will be possible for you to achieve your aim of becoming a fluent L2 speaker.



1. Kuhl, P. K., Conboy, B. T., Coffey-Corina, S., Padden, D., Rivera-Gaxiola, M., & Nelson, T. (2008). Phonetic learning as a pathway to language: New data and native language magnet theory expanded (NLM-e). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 363, 979-1000.

2. Johnson, J.S., & Newport, E.L. (1989). Critical period effects in second language learning: the influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language, Cognitive Psychology, 21, 60-99.

3. Kuhl, P.K. (2004). Early language acquisition, Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5, 831-843.

4. Werker, J. F., & Tees, R. C. (. (1984a). Cross-language speech perception: Evidence for perceptual reorganization during the first year of life. Infant Behavior and Development, 7, 49-63.

5. Werker, J. F., & Lalonde, C. E. (1988). Developmental Psychology, 24, 672-683.

6. Birdsong, D. (1999). Introduction: Whys and why nots of the critical period hypothesis for second language acquisition. In D. Birdsong (Ed.), Second language acquisition and the critical period hypothesis (pp. 1-22). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

7. Birdsong, D. (2006). Age and second language acquisition and processing: A selective overview. Language Learning, 56, 9-48.

8. Bongaerts, T. (1999). Ultimate attainment in L2 pronunciation: The ease of very advanced late L2 learners. In D. Birdsong (Ed.), Second language acquisition and the critical period hypothesis (pp.133-149). Mahwah, NJ. Erlbaum.

9. McDonald, J.L. (2000). Grammaticality judgments in a second language: Influences of age of acquisition and native language. Applied Psycholinguistics, 21, 395-423.

10. Abu-Rabia, S., & Kehat, S. (2004). The critical period for second language pronunciation: Is there such a thing? Ten case studies of late starters who attained a native-like Hebrew accent. Educational Psychology, 24, 77-98.

11. Friederici, A.D., Steinhauer, K., & Pfeifer, E. (2002). Brain signatures of artificial language processing: Evidence challenging the critical period hypothesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99, 529-534.

12. Hahne, A., & Friederici, A. D. (2001). Processing a second language: Late learners’ comprehension mechanisms as revealed by event-related brain potentials. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 4, 123-141.

13. Steinhauer, K., White, E.J., & Drury, J. (2009). Temporal dynamics of late second language acquisition: evidence from event-related brain potentials. Second Language Research, 25, 13-41.

14. Ojima, S., Nakata, H., & Kakigi, R. (2005). An ERP study of second language learning after childhood: Effects of proficiency. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17, 1212-1228.

15. Perani, D., Paulesu, E., Sebastian-Galles, N., Dupoux, E., Dehaene, S., Bettinardi, V., et al. (1998). The bilingual brain: Proficiency and age of acquisition of the second language. Brain, 121, 1841-1852.

16. Dehaene, S., Dupoux, E., Mehler, J., Cohen, L., Paulesu, E., Perani, D., et al. (1997). Anatomical variability in the cortical representation of first and second language. NeuroReport, 8, 3809-3815.



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Summer 2018

Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

Christopher Casson, Rachel Coneys, Jack Cooper, Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD, Tiffany, Quinn, Kevin Ray, Ellena Sanderson, Daniel Shao

  1. British Brain Bee
  2. Neurosurgeon of the MIllenium
  3. Flies on a treadmill - the answer to a puzzling mystery of neuroscience?

1. British Brain Bee

By Ghalia Khan, Marketing Trustee, Brain Bee

Directed by founder Dr. Norbert Myslinski, the International Brain Bee is a worldwide competition that motivates students to learn about the brain, captures their imaginations, and inspires them to pursue neuroscience careers to help treat and find cures for neurological and psychological disorders.

    Sheep brain dissection. Photo Credit: British Brain Bee.

Founded in 1999, more than 60 nations and 175 chapters are engaged in coordinating Brain Bee programs around the world, and this number is rapidly increasing. About 50,000 students participate across six continents every year, and more than 600 neuroscientists have been involved with organizing and judging the events. An Alumni Club has been established to sustain the global community of young scientists into their university and career tracts.


The Brain Bee competition platform is organized on three levels: local, national, and international. Local scientific institutions are licensed by the International Brain Bee (IBB) to carry out city-wide or regional events, engaging students from 14-19 years of age. The first-place prize winners are granted the opportunity to compete at the national level. The National Champions are, in turn, invited to represent their country at the annual International Brain Bee competition, which is hosted by different neuroscience organizations during an international conference.

The Btitish Brain Bee Comeptition format.



1. Kandel ER (2006) In Search of Memory: The emergence of a new science of mind (W W Norton & Co.: New York).

2. The Brain Prize Lecture. Available at [Accessed 6th January 2017]


2. Neurosurgeon of the MIllenium

By Dr Joshua Au-Yeung, MBBS, FY2 Doctor in Stroke Medicine, NHS Northern Care Alliance

Professor Robin Sengupta is a prominent neurosurgeon who has been dubbed “neurosurgeon of the millennium” by his peers. His achievements are many; most recently he has been the recipient of an OBE, as well as being awarded the Medal of Honour by the World Federation of Neurological Surgeons (1).

Robin was born into poverty in Chittagong, India. His family could not afford to send him to school, so he would read each and every book that he could get his hands on. Eventually he was able to pay for school by tutoring younger students. Robin soon defied all odds to gain a place in medical school in Kolkata, India. After graduating, he moved to study surgery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK. He stayed in Newcastle for 51 years, working as a leading neurosurgeon, carrying out cutting-edge research and treating countless patients.

During his neurosurgical training, Robin became interested in cerebral aneurysm operations. An aneurysm is characterised by weakness in the walls of a vein or an artery. Aneurysms can be congenital or acquired through life and exacerbated by lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, smoking and alcoholism. When the vascular wall components are weakened, the weak section can expand and “balloon”. The danger is that an aneurysm is prone to bursting or leaking. It goes without saying that the mortality and functional impact of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm can be very serious.

In a time where there was no protocol or consensus on how to manage aneurysmal subarachnoid haemorrhages, a life-threatening and often fatal bleed in the surface of the brain, Robin strived to improve our knowledge and management of these patients. 

Robin travelled extensively all over the world, visiting many different neurosurgeons to observe the vast array of techniques and management styles of patients with subarachnoid haemorrhages. Through his research, he identified which common factors conferred good outcomes in aneurysm surgery. Robin used what he had observed to refine and develop his own novel technique. He then published a paper detailing 32 anterior communicating artery operations that he had carried out; his ability to complete the operations with a mortality rate of zero was unheard of at the time (2). Robin’s pioneering technique and positive outcomes led to referrals from around the UK and internationally.

After dedicating much of his life to the NHS, Robin wanted to fulfil his own vision for delivering high quality, affordable healthcare to people in India. He decided to return to Kolkata, the city that made him the doctor he is today, and established the Institute of Neuroscience, Kolkata (IN-K) (3). Today, the IN-K is one of the best specialty hospitals in India for treatment, education and research in the field of neurology and neurosurger.



1. Newcastle University Press Office (2016) “World-leading neurosurgeon receives Honorary Doctor of Medicine”. Available at: (Accessed May 2018)

2. Sengupta RP, et al. (1975) Quality of survival following direct surgery for anterior communicating artery aneurysms. Journal of Neurosurgery43, 58-64.

3. I-NK Institute of Neuroscience Kolkata (2018) “Man with a Mission”. Available at (Accessed May 2018)


3. Flies on a treadmill - the answer to a puzzling mystery of neuroscience?

By Francesco Monaca, Undergrad student in Biomedical Sciences, University of Southampton

The mystery in question is sleep. Fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) placed on a spherical treadmill are offering insights into the mechanisms regulating this marvellous yet poorly understood biological process. Fruit flies have already played a paramount role in elucidating the circadian timekeeping system. The circadian clock dictates when we should go to sleep, according to environmental cues. The same model organism is now being studied to shed light onto the sleep homeostat, a second ‘controller’ which might explain why we need to sleep in the first place.

In Drosophila, a population of dopaminergic neurons projecting to the ‘dorsal fan-shaped body’ (dFB) of the central complex (a region running across the midline of the insect brain) has been observed to induce sleep when stimulated (1). These neurons are electrically active and inactive in sleep-deprived and rested flies, respectively. It is therefore plausible to believe that dFB neurons effectively act as a switch between quiescent and active states, with Dop1R2 receptors mediating the arousing effects of dopamine.

To test this idea and characterise the mechanisms underlying the dopamine-modulated switch, the behaviour of head-fixed experimental flies on treadmills was studied while wake-promoting signals resulting in dopamine release were delivered via optogenetics (2). The behavioural mark indicating that flies transitioned from sleep to wakefulness was a period of locomotor activity after at least five minutes of inactivity.

Interestingly, this research highlighted that optogenetic stimulation of dFB neurons resulted in their transient hyperpolarisation and concomitant awakening of flies. Both effects were mediated by dopamine interacting with Dop1R2 receptors.

Surprisingly, while single dopamine pulses silenced dFB neurons temporarily, prolonged dopamine supply switched these neurones to the OFF (inactive) state, in which they remained even in the absence of transmitter. The speed of transition between ON and OFF states suggested that the translocation of ion channels to the plasma membrane could effectively be the mechanism underlying this switch, accounting for the increased potassium conductances and subsequent hyperpolarisation of dFB neurones observed when flies wake up.

Two main types of channels are expressed in dFB neurons in their ON, electrically active state, namely Shaker and Shab. Currents associated with these two channels are downregulated when cells are switched to their OFF state by dopamine, whereas voltage-independent leak currents are upregulated through a channel termed Sandman.

Therefore, in response to dopamine, Sandman is internalised within the plasma membrane and its hyperpolarising current, along with the attenuation of Shaker and Shab, is responsible for the transition of dFB neurons into OFF state, triggering awakening of flies. The next big step for sleep researchers would now be understanding the molecular players influencing this homeostatic switch.



1. Donlea, J. M., Pimentel, D. & Miesenböck, G. (2014) Neuronal machinery of sleep homeostasis in Drosophila. Neuron, 81, 860–87.

2. Pimentel, D., Donlea, J. M., Talbot, C.B., Song, S.M., Thurston, A.J.F. & Miesenböck, G. (2016) Operation of a homeostatic sleep switch. Nature, 536, 333-337.


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Spring 2018

Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

Khatsha Ali, Molly Campbell, Jessica Chadwick, Rachel Coneys, Anne Cranston, Hayley Earle, Marta Huelin, Aisha Islam, Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD, Rohan Krajeski, PhD, Melissa Large, Oriol Pavón-Arocas, Tiffany Quinn, Fran van Heusden

  1. 2017 Brain Prize Lectures
  2. Reflecting on my UK-Taiwan Research Experience as an MSc Student
  3. A Summer School from the CAJAL Advanced Neuroscience Training Programme
  4. Iron in the Parkinson's Brain
  5. New Findings on Neurons and Brainwaves Associated with Fear Suppression After Extinction Learning
  6. A brief introduction to reproducible research and open science

1. 2017 Brain Prize Lectures

By Rafael Cobb, MSc Student in Molecular Neuroscience, University of Bristol

The 2017 Brain Prize was awarded by The Lundbeck Foundation (1) to Wolfram Schultz, Peter Dayan and Ray Dolan for their study of he role of dopamine in reward and learning. Surprised at and grateful for winning a ticket to see them talk, I headed to the venue: the Royal Society at the heart of London. As I was approaching the venue from the Mall, the view was impressive.

Professor Schultz gave the opening talk, and set the tone for the evening, modestly joking that ‘There’s a really great lecture, after my lecture’. In an experiment analyzing behavior in monkeys, Schultz observed that when presented with two options, one slightly riskier and more rewarding than the other, monkeys preferred the higher stakes option. This tallies with evidence that the dopamine response is greater in high-risk gambles. Economic modelling suggests dopamine codes for reward subjectively; stronger dopamine release is based on a greater than expected reward. However, when receiving an expected reward, dopaminergic (dopamine producing) neurons do not activate above baseline-meaning no overall increase in dopamine when the reward is expected.

Next to speak, Professor Dayan went on to couch the dopamine reward response in terms of reward prediction. He suggested that dopamine release guides learning by acting as a feedback mechanism, which therefore influences decision-making. Professor Dayan’s talk centered on the mathematical model he created explaining how this mechanism works. From a neuropsychiatrist’s perspective, Professor Dolan extended the concept to humans and further elucidated dopamine’s role in learning, providing evidence that increasing dopamine production improves reward-dependent learning, whereas reducing dopamine production impairs it. Dolan also suggested that, given that dopamine production slowly declines once humans reach adulthood, learning may become impaired because of a reduction in the ability of dopaminergic neurons to predict reward. Elaborating on points made in the previous talks, Dolan explained the amount of money does not affect happiness in gambling. Instead, the perception of happiness in gambling is based on whether the gamblers are performing better than their dopamine-producing neurons predict.

From a molecular neuroscientist point of view, my main takeaways from the event were the interdisciplinary nature of the research, the opportunity to hear how molecular work can be complemented by mathematical models and translational experiments, and the realization that had they not combined their expertise, these researchers would have not have reached their fascinating conclusion.


1. The Brain Prize Lecture. Available at http;// [Accessed 11th January 2018]


2. Reflecting on my UK-Taiwan Research Experience as an MSc Student

By Ash Chetri, Research Software Engineer, University College London

During my year as a Masters student at the university of Edinburgh, I was fortunate to be surrounded by a diverse and stimulating academic community in the department of Neuroscience. It wasn’t until I met Dr. Jane Haley, that I was given the opportunity to volunteer for an outreach event in Roslin, Edinburgh. As well as meeting Dr. Haley at the event, I also met Dr. Szu-Han Wang (PI of Wang Lab at the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences).

The conversation I had with Dr. Wang about my undergraduate research project on implicit memory, truly cemented my decision to work under her supervision towards my MSc thesis. So naturally when Dr. Wang advertised a placement for an MSc project, I applied without any haste. To my relief, Dr. Wang kindly accepted.

From my perspective, the best part of the project was the opportunity to participate in collaborative research in Taiwan. But as expected, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) research requires a wide knowledge of varied subject areas. Furthermore, there tends to be researchers from a range of backgrounds. For example, animal research is particularly important as it bridges the understanding between cognition and behaviour (psychologists/cognitive neuroscientists) with the physics and physiology of MRI (radiologists, engineers). Hence, the collaboration between various fields is absolutely key in MRI research.

Before setting off for Taiwan, for months I focused on the technical gaps in my knowledge by iterative trouble-shooting and rote-learning through best practices. Although the sheer novelty of doing awake-rodent fMRI research became growingly apparent through the limited number of specific tools and research papers available (compared to human fMRI research). Thankfully, my collaborator Sun-Lin Han (a PhD student at LMRR, Chang-Gung University) guided me through the technicalities of independent component analysis and dynamic causal modelling.

Not only was I working in a beautiful country, but also I made many friends in the lab; connections I am grateful for. Taiwanese people are friendly; I never once felt daunted, alone, or even hungry (the canteen was filled with delicious Taiwanese food). I would recommend anyone to visit or consider working in Taiwan or in any international institution that they may be considering when presented with the opportunity. The learning experience was rich, something that perhaps cannot be rivalled with any of my peers at the University of Edinburgh. This would be something I’d do again without a moment’s thought.

The Radiology Department at the host institution Chang-Gung University that is privately supported by the Chang-Gung Group contains several beautiful murals designed by the students of the university.


3. A summer school from the CAJAL Advanced Neuroscience Training Programme

By Cristiana Vagnoni, PhD Student in Neuroscience, University of Oxford

The CAJAL summer school “Interacting with Neural Circuits” was held on 2-22 July 2017, at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown (Lisbon, Portugal), a state-of-the-art research facility named in 2012 the best place worldwide, outside the USA, to do postdoctoral work (1). This course is part of the CAJAL Advanced Neuroscience Training Programme, a partnership between five leading neuroscience institutions (FENS, IBRO, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, University of Bordeaux, and the Champalimaud Foundation) to establish a core neuroscience training facility in Europe (2). “Interacting with Neural Circuits” intended to combine lectures with hands-on training to highlight the latest techniques to investigate neural circuits, ranging from viral tracing to all-optical circuit interrogation. Students were provided with enough practical experience to understand the techniques’ advantages and disadvantages, to interpret experimental data correctly, and to have the capacity to apply their learning in their home laboratories.

The first two weeks of the course were structured with morning lectures given by international leading experts of the field, including Profs. Winfried Denk, Mark Schnitzer, Kenneth Harris, and Michael Häusser, among others. Topics ranged from neuronal subtype identification and connectomics, to in vivo circuit dissection and behavioural modeling. One lecture, by Prof. Rui Costa, focused on animal experimentation, with reflections about scientists’ responsibility in conducting animal research and in communicating its utility to the general public. Afternoons and evenings were dedicated to intensive hands-on training on the broadest collection of techniques: viral neuronal tracing, in vitro and in vivo patch-clamp recording, high density in vivo extracellular recordings, fibre-optic fluorescence microendoscopy, in vivo calcium imaging, and all-optical circuit interrogation (3).

During the last week, students were divided into groups and worked on a mini-project to gain independent experience with these techniques. My project focused on the predictive features of the visual cortex, comparing juvenile and adult mice, using in vivo calcium imaging and extracellular recordings with Neuropixels probes. Besides highlighting cutting-edge science, the course provided ample time to interact with course-mates, teaching assistants, speakers, and course organisers through many social events, including two poster sessions, a football match, a surfing trip, and daily shared meals.

In only three weeks, I explored new topics, developed a deeper understanding of the field, and learned new in vivo techniques and analysis approaches. Whether you are a first-year PhD student or an experienced post-doc, I can definitely recommend “Interacting with Neural Circuits” as an incredible opportunity for scientific growth and for establishing an international network of highly specialised researchers.


1. The Champalimaud Foundation History, available at

2. About the CAJAL Advanced Neuroscience Training Programme, available at

3. Interacting with Neural Circuits Website, available at


Final presentation of the mini-projects. Photo Credit: Catarina Ferreira da Silva.


Official group picture of the Summer School "Interacting with Neural Circuits", taken on July 21st 2017. Photo Credit: Catarina Ferreira da Silva.

Attendees’ opinions about the 2017 CAJAL summer school “Interacting with Neural Circuits”

“CAJAL-Interacting with Neural Circuits brought together outstanding researchers in key areas of contemporary neuroscience to discuss current concepts and define challenges for future research. Close interaction with the speakers, teaching assistants and course directors provided substantial benefit to my ongoing project and scientific development. At the end of the course, I returned to my lab very motivated and with full of ideas to implement.”

Tugrul Ozdemir

Division of Cognitive Neurobiology

Center for Brain Research, Medical University of Vienna, Austria


“It was amazing to be able to try a technique first person, to understand the advantages and disadvantages, the technical difficulties and success rate of the experimental approach. I can definitely say that I returned to my lab enriched in knowledge and with new ideas on which questions I can ask and what techniques I can use to answer these. We also had the possibility to meet other students and researchers in the field, which was fun and gave us the opportunity to network with a wide group of people from different fields in neuroscience.”

Chiara Toschi

Department of Psychology

University of Cambridge, UK


“I think the course was a great way to open our minds on the multiple resources and approaches available and left us with a fair amount of confidence we would be able to establish some of these techniques in our respective lab. Moreover, it was an incredible networking experience: I had the great opportunity to bond with students and researchers from all over the world, sharing experiences and ideas and setting the ground for future collaborations and good friendships.”

Luca Godenzini

Neural Networks Lab

Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, Australia


“This Cajal summer school offered an amazing overview over the range of techniques today’s neuroscientists can choose from when tackling important questions. But it was much more than your typical lab course. Being part of the unique group of smart and motivated young scientists, we developed totally new ideas and made many new friends along the way. For me as a tool developer, it was a unique opportunity to experience first-hand, where new tools are needed or where current methods leave room for improvement. Looking back at how much we learned and how much fun we had together, I cannot believe it was only 3 weeks long.”

Manuel Alexander Mohr

Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janelia Research Campus, USA and

Department of Systems Science and Engineering, ETH Zürich, Switzerland


4. Iron in the Parkinson's Brain

By Hayley Earle, MSc Student in Neuroscience, University of Glasgow

Iron is essential for many metabolic processes such as DNA synthesis (1). While variations in iron concentration exist throughout development, a general increase occurs with age. This is particularly marked in the substantia nigra (SN) brain region, which is involved in Parkinson’s disease (PD) (2,3).

This age dependent increase may be caused by an upregulation of the divalent metal transporter 1 (DMT1), a protein that transports ferrous ions (Fe2+) into cells (4). Research by Saadat and colleagues suggested a link between a polymorphism of the SLC11A2 gene (that encodes DMT1) and PD (5). Additionally, Song and colleagues determined that silencing of iron transporter, ferroportin 1, caused an elevation in intracellular iron levels (6), demonstrating its potential role.

Dopamine (DA) metabolism occurs via the monoamine oxidases (MAO-A and -B).  In both aged and PD individuals, MAO-B is upregulated. Metabolism of DA through this enzyme leads to hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) production (7), which in turn can produce reactive oxygen species (ROS) through reversible Fenton and Haber-Weiss reactions (8). ROS are normally produced during aerobic respiration. Excessive production causes damage to proteins, lipids, DNA and RNA, and consequently induces cell death (9).

Ferroptosis is a novel iron-dependent form of regulated cell death that can be induced by a depletion of glutathione (10). This can occur through the inhibition of a glutathione-dependent enzyme, GPX4, which under normal physiological circumstances limits the rate of iron-dependent lipid peroxidation in cells (11, 12, 13). Ferroptosis can be prevented using ferrostatin and iron chelators (10). However, applying such conclusions to PD requires caution – most of the research into ferroptosis has been conducted in cancer cells.

There is currently very little research into PD associated ferroptosis. Do Van (14) determined that erastin, a ferroptosis inducer, can provoke cell death characteristic of ferroptosis, and confirmed Dixon’s findings that ferroptotic death is preventable by ferrostatin-1. In contrast to previous research, Do Van also reported GPX4 to be upregulated in PD, possibly due to co-localisation of GPX4 with neuromelanin, an iron chelator found in high concentrations within the SN (17). The SN is rich in dopaminergic neurons and iron, which may render it particularly vulnerable to the degeneration observed in PD (18, 19).

Whilst evidence remains limited, the implication of ferroptosis as the mode of cell death in PD presents a novel research direction, through which we may discover novel preventative or curative measures against this debilitating disease. 


1. Abbaspour N, et al. (2014) Review on iron and its importance for human health. J Res Med Sci 19(2):164–174.

2. Bartzokis G, et al. (1997) MR evaluation of age-related increase of brain iron in young adult and older normal males. J Magn Reson Imaging 15(1):29–35.

3. Fukunaga M, et al. (2010) Layer-specific variation of iron content in cerebral cortex as a source of MRI contrast. Proc Natl Acad Sci 107(8):3834–3839.

4. Lu L-N, et al. (2016) Expression of iron transporters and pathological hallmarks of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases in the brain of young, adult, and aged rats. Mol Neurobiol 54(7):5213–5224.

5. Saadat S.M, et al. (2015) Is the 1254T>C polymorphism in the DMT1 gene associated with Parkinson’s disease?. Neurosci Lett 594(1):51–54.

6. Song N, et al. (2010) Ferroportin 1 but not hephaestin contributes to iron accumulation in a cell model of Parkinson’s disease. Free Radic Biol Med 48(2):332–341.

7. Edmondson D (2014) Hydrogen Peroxide Produced by Mitochondrial Monoamine Oxidase Catalysis: Biological Implications. Curr Pharm Des 20(2):155–160.

8. Tabner, B.J, et al. (2001) Production of Reactive Osygen Species from Aggregating Proteins Implicated in Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and Other Neurodegenerative Diseases. Curr. Top. Med. Chem. 1(6):507–517.

9. Zorov D, et al. (2014) Mitochondrial reactive oxygen species (ROS) and ROS-induced ROS release. Physiol Rev 94(3):909–950.

10. Dixon S.J, et al. (2012) Ferroptosis: an iron-dependent form of nonapoptotic cell death. Cell 149(5):1060–1072.

11. Gao M, et al. (2015) Metabolism and iron signaling in ferroptotic cell death. Oncotarget 6(34):35145–35146.

12. Cao J & Dixon S (2016) Mechanisms of ferroptosis. Cell Mol Life Sci 73(11-12):2195–2209.

13. Yang W & Stockwell B (2016) Ferroptosis: death by lipid peroxidation. Trends Cell Biol 26(3):165–176.

14. Do Van B, et al. (2016) Ferroptosis, a newly characterized form of cell death in Parkinson’s disease that is regulated by PKC. Neurobiol Dis 94(1):169–178.

15. Dolma S, et al. (2003) Identification of genotype-selective antitumor agents using synthetic lethal chemical screening in engineered human tumor cells. Cancer Cell 2003 3:285–296.

16. Zhang X, et al. (2014) Cell-based assays for Parkinson's disease using differentiated human LUHMES cells. Acta Pharmacol Sin 35(7):945–956.

17. Bellinger F, et al. (2011) Glutathione peroxidase 4 is associated with neuromelanin in substantia nigra and dystrophic axons in putamen of Parkinson's brain. Mol Neurodegener 6(8).

18. Gotz M, et al. (2004) The relevance of iron in the pathogenesis of Parkinson's disease. Ann N.Y Acad Sci 1012(1):193–208.

19. Ayton S & Lei P (2014) Nigral iron elevation is an invariable feature of Parkinson’s disease and is a sufficient cause of neurodegeneration. BioMed Red Int 2014.


5. New Findings on Neurons and Brainwaves Associated with Fear Suppression after Extinction Learning

By Adela Beloucif, Undergraduate Student in Psychology & Neuroscience, University of Glasgow

Fear and learning seem counterintuitive. After all, rarely are study sessions improved by feelings of terror. Learning that something is dangerous, or no longer a threat, is essential to the purpose of fear. Most fear is learned through classical conditioning, whereby animals associate a cue with something inherently dangerous or unpleasant. They can later learn something is not dangerous through repeated experience of that cue without trauma. This is termed extinction learning, whereby the new memory suppresses the original fear memory.

A recent study (1) investigated the potential neurons responsible for suppression of fear memories post extinction learning. They used transgenic TetTag mice expressing inhibitory DREADD (designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs) receptor hM4Di, to allow control of basolateral amygdala (BLA) parvalbumin-expressing (PV) interneurons, through inhibition of cell activity by injection of DREADD ligand clozapine-N-oxide (CNO). Mice were taught to fear a cage by receiving an electric shock, prior to extinguishing that fear through removal of the shock. Mice were then injected with CNO. Their fear response was measured as time spent frozen and immobile, using Actimetrics FreezeFrame software. Neuronal activity was measured through expression of ZIF protein and GFP. Both freezing behaviour and activity of fear-associated neurons in the BLA increased after CNO injection. Control mice were placed in a neutral box environment, receiving no shocks, and a vehicle injection of 5% DMSO in saline was used.

The authors predicted PV interneuron control to be due to greater levels of innervation between PV interneurons and BLA fear-associated neurons, compared with extinction behaviour associated neurons. However, the results of perisomatic analysis through use of the mCherry virus did not support this. To determine which other processes may potentially be influenced by PV interneurons, more hM4Di expressing mice were tested, and their Local Field Potentials (LFP) measured using surgically implanted electrodes. LFP oscillations between 3-6Hz were consistently linked with fear and freezing behaviour. As fear neurons were reactivated post CNO injection, the BLA LFP exhibited a shift from 6-12Hz towards 3-6Hz.

Ultimately, this research may be used for the treatment of anxiety disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), of which current treatments are largely ineffective in a number of patients (2). An understanding of exactly which neurons are involved in extinction learning may help develop more targeted drugs. Insight regarding brainwaves may also help, using neurofeedback training to alter brainwaves to help alleviate PTSD symptoms (2). Greater understanding of how these oscillations compete and interact could help improve treatment by allowing a more targeted approach.


1. Davis P, et al. (2017) Cellular and oscillatory substrates of fear extinction learning. Nat Neurosci 20 (11):1624-1633

2. Shalev A, et al. (2017) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. NEJM 376 (25):2459-2469.


6. A brief Introduction to reproducible research and open science

By Stephen Eglen, PhD, Co-founder of the Special Interest Group 'Reproducible Research and Open Neuroscience' at the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility

At first glance, it might seem odd that you would need to prefix the term "research" with the qualifier "reproducible".  Surely, once you have a paper in your hands, you have all the details to reproduce someone else's work? That's certainly the theory when writing the paper, but often not the practice. Since 2004 we've set a problem for our masters students to reproduce key results from a paper within computational biology. Even though students carefully select a paper where the methods section seems comprehensive, and all the experimental data are available, they invariably find many missing details that preclude them from reproducing key figures or results. Many papers have been published on this failure to reproduce (1), commonly termed the "reproducibility crisis" (2). So, what might reproducible research entail? The definition varies across groups, but my interpretation is that when publishing result, labs should also provide all relevant datasets and methodology for transforming data into results. This means providing the spreadsheets or computational scripts to reproduce analysis. In turn, researchers should move away from "point and click" analysis methodologies (doing a t-test in Excel) towards computer scripts (such as R, matlab or python) so that others can re-run the same routines.

This leads us naturally to the second term, open science. The competitive nature of science, such as limited funding, jobs, and ‘high impact’ publications means that there is a natural tendency to withhold key datasets or analysis technologies: why give away your results to your competitors? An alternative view gaining prominence in recent years is that by sharing our resources, we allow others to build on our work and science as a whole should benefit. As an open scientist you are increasing your chances of making your work reproducible.

Being an open scientist may seem naive and altruistic, but there are selfish reasons for sharing your research (3). Many funding agencies now require data management plans for sharing of data post publication, and journals are increasingly asking for data and  methods. My optimistic hope is that in 10 years we might be able to drop the qualifier ‘open’ and instead talk again simply about science.

Top tips for becoming an open scientist:

1. Read the guidelines in Markowetz (3) and think if they would apply to you.

2. Read about experiences such as Erin McKiernan.

3. Do experiments?  Try writing a registered report before doing the experiments to reduce publication bias.

4. Talk to your local library to see what services they can offer to help archive and share your research.  Find a local community of like-minded scientists!

5. Learn how to code, rather than using Excel, for your data analysis.  e.g.

Comments?  Send them to me twitter @StephenEglen


1. Ioannidis JPA (2005) Why most published research findings are false. PLoS Med 2:e124.

2. Baker M (2016) 1,500 scientists lift the lid onreproducibility. Nature 533:452‚Äì454.

3. Markowetz F (2015) Five selfish reasons to work reproducibly. Genome Biol 16:274.


Back to top

Autumn 2017

Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

Inês Barreiros, Claire Chan, Jack Cooper, Harsha Gurnani, Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD, Josh Newman, Hope Oloye, Oriol Pavón Arocas

  1. Pregnancy in clinical trials: the challenges of involving pregnant women in biomedical research
  2. Connecting through a Neonatal Connectome Course-A student perspective 
  3. Fixing the unfixable: could stem cells be the answer to curing spinal cord injury? 

1. Pregnancy in clinical trials: the challenges of involving pregnant women in biomedical research

By Anna Stevenson, PhD student in Neuroscience, University of Edinburgh

The relevance of clinical research in establishing safe and effective medical therapies is well recognised. However, recently attention has turned to the scant evidence base from which to draw best practice in the treatment of medical conditions for a population that is typically excluded from such research: pregnant women.

Pregnant women suffer from the same medical conditions as the general population, but other than research on pregnancy itself, there is a dearth of clinical trials involving pregnant women, and few drugs are directly approved for use during pregnancy. Thus, doctors treating pregnant patients are forced to rely on inferences from drug studies that have explicitly excluded pregnant women in their trials. Women experience substantial physiological changes during pregnancy, including metabolic and haematological alterations, which are likely to impact on their pharmacodynamics. Extrapolation from such studies is, therefore, a vastly imperfect way of informing pharmaceutical dosage and efficacy, and doing so means pregnant women are in danger of under- or mis-treatment, and are ill-informed about the risk exposure to certain therapies could pose, both to themselves, and their unborn child. The need for a more informed understanding of therapies during pregnancy is compelling, and can only be achieved by including this population in clinical research. So why are pregnant women still so often excluded from clinical trials, and can the challenges facing their involvement in research be overcome? To answer such questions, we must first consider the key ethical principles of human clinical research.

The Nuremberg code, created as a result of the Nuremberg trials - a set of tribunals for war crimes in response to the horrific human experimentation carried out in Nazi concentration camps during World War II - was vital in establishing contemporary ethical principles for experimentation involving human participants. The code, along with the associated declaration of Helsinki, remains one of the main pieces of documentation upon which modern research ethics is based (1, 2). It sets out ten key requirements for medical research involving humans, including the necessity of voluntary informed consent - a cornerstone of modern medical ethics (see List 1). 

List 1. Key requirements of the Nuremburg Code

  • Voluntary, informed consent is absolutely essential
  • The expected experimental results should be beneficial for society and unobtainable by other means
  • There is justification for the trial based on previous experimental outcomes and knowledge (eg. data from animal experiments)
  • Unnecessary physical or mental suffering and injury should be avoided
  • Trials should not be run if there is any known risk of injury or death
  • The potential humanitarian benefit from the results should outweigh any risks involved
  • Proper preparations and adequate facilities should be provided to protect subjects from any experimental risk
  • Staff who conduct the experiment must be fully trained and suitably qualified
  • Subjects must be free to withdraw from the experiment at any point
  • Staff must stop the experiment if at any point they believe that continuation would be harmful to subjects

Whilst the code sets out to protect the human rights of all research subjects, it is particularly relevant in the safeguarding of those who most need it: persons considered vulnerable. Historically, this group has included children, adults with compromised mental capacity, prisoners and pregnant women. Understandably, those who lack capacity, both physically and/or mentally, need this protection to ensure their rights remain inviolate and that they retain as much autonomy as the law allows. However, including pregnant women alongside this group is controversial as, unless they fall under another of the categories listed above, they are not a directly vulnerable group, retaining the same capacity for autonomous decision making, and are simply distinguished from the general population by being inseparable from a vulnerable ‘future person’ – their unborn child. It is the incapacity of this ‘future person’ maturing within their mother that has historically rendered the mother-foetus entity vulnerable in the eyes of clinical researchers and physicians. Generally, this has meant that even if a pregnant woman wishes to be a part of clinical research, she is likely to be excluded.

This classification is in contrast to official legalities surrounding the rights of pregnant women. Though widely discouraged, it is not illegal for pregnant women to smoke or drink alcohol, which can result in foetal growth restriction and developmental impairment, or indeed, in certain circumstances, to terminate the pregnancy. This means official UK laws permit the autonomy of expectant mothers more fully than the ethics surrounding their involvement in clinical experimentation. The reason for this difference is largely due to the fact that whilst the medical ethics surrounding foetuses is blurred with emotion and complexity (3-5), the actual UK law is more distinct: the rights of the foetus are not realised until the foetus is born alive. Legally, the foetus is a ‘person-in-waiting’, and this means that no litigation can be brought by a child against its mother for any pre-natal injuries or harm caused by their mother’s conduct before their birth [(6). While a mother may not be held liable by a judge or jury for harm caused to her child as a result of her gravid behaviour, clinical researchers have an enduring moral obligation to ‘do no harm’ to a future person in the course of their experiments, meaning pregnant women are routinely excluded from clinical trials to ensure their foetus is protected. This is an understandable concern, and the importance of preventing avoidable harm to women and their foetuses through research is undeniable. It is doubtful that anyone would argue that researchers should simply accept the same view as the law with regards to foetal rights in order to more readily include pregnant mothers in research; pregnant women cannot simply be treated like other research subjects as they are indeed physiologically different to the general population, and the safety of their baby is a priority. This may mean that involving them in research is more challenging and more considerations are needed; however, it seems there is a good argument for re-classifying pregnant women as ‘complex’, both scientifically and ethically, rather than ‘vulnerable’, when considering their participation. If this were universally agreed upon, it could lead to a corresponding shift in the inclusion criteria for clinical trials and an increase in studies that do not automatically exclude them due to their perceived vulnerability.

However, though this reclassification could aid trials to include pregnant women, there cannot be a universal answer regarding their involvement in clinical research as not all clinical experiments are alike. Medical research is broadly split into either therapeutic or non-therapeutic subgroups. Therapeutic research is conducted with therapeutic intent, often with the aim of comparing one intervention with another. Conversely, non-therapeutic research is conducted specifically to answer a scientific research question or to obtain knowledge, which may contribute to the future development of a treatment, but that is unlikely to produce a diagnostic, preventative, or therapeutic benefit to current subjects. The two types of research raise both overlapping and separate ethical issues with regard to the involvement of pregnant women.

Non-therapeutic research subjects receive no direct benefit from their involvement and instead must be willing to put themselves at risk, albeit reasonable risk, to benefit science. This research is hard to justify in pregnant women as although the pregnant mother may be willing to put herself at risk in order to further scientific knowledge, she cannot make the same decision for her unborn child. There is great debate about whether or not she should be allowed to put her foetus at risk when there is no possible therapeutic benefit for either of them. It does seem that non-therapeutic research on a pregnant woman might be justified if the woman gives full, informed consent and there is known to be no risk to the foetus, or if the risks involved are minimal and comparable to the normal risks a foetus is exposed to. If the risk is greater than this, non-therapeutic research would be extremely difficult to rationalise; as the pregnant volunteer is not being harmed by being excluded from such research, except arguably in terms of their autonomy, their omission seems fair.

Therapeutic research is really where the key debate about involving pregnant women in research lies. This type research can only be defined as ethical if there is an uncertainty about the best form of treatment, and clinicians involved in this research must believe that the experimental intervention being offered is likely to produce as good, if not better, outcomes as current best practice. Currently, there remains extensive uncertainty about the optimal treatment of numerous conditions concomitant with, but not exclusive to, pregnancy, precisely because of the paucity of treatment trials in pregnant women, so this initial ethical hurdle is easily overcome. Therapeutic research in pregnant women can be further split into that which may benefit only the woman, only the foetus, or both. The latter two of these may, in most cases, be acceptable as long as the pregnant mother has freely consented to accept any risk to herself the intervention may pose, and if the potential therapeutic benefits to either her foetus alone, or the two of them together, outweigh the risks involved. If research may benefit the mother, but carries a risk to her unborn child (such as treatment for some cancers), this is when the potential for a maternal-foetal ‘conflict of interest’ can arise. Answers about how best to proceed in such situations are clearer if the mother has a disease or condition that poses significant risk to her life. When the potential benefits are more subtle, the right answers are harder to come by.

A prominent example of such a situation, although it cannot be classified as research in itself, has become a key factor behind the caution felt by researchers about including pregnant women in treatment trials. Thalidomide, first developed as a sedative by German pharmaceutical company Chemie Grünenthal, was serendipitously found to be an effective anti-emetic and, as medication ingestion during pregnancy was not strictly controlled during this time, was prescribed to pregnant women suffering with morning sickness from 1953 onwards. As the drug had not been appropriately tested, these women and their physicians were unaware the drug could pose a risk to developing foetuses. Only after an Australian doctor - William McBride - published a letter in The Lancet in 1961 was the full, devastating effect of the drug revealed. Thalidomide was found to be directly responsible for teratogenic deformities in children and led to the estimated death of approximately 2,000 babies worldwide, with a further 10,000 suffering serious birth defects (7).

The shockwaves the scandal produced in the pharmaceutical industry are still being felt, with litigation and compensatory claims continuing over 50 years later. It is a major contributor to the reluctance to test drugs in pregnant women and, as a result, the evidence base for drug profiles in this population remains lacking, and they are left to be treated with medications that would be classed as archaic in other branches of medicine. While the thalidomide scandal was devastating, and pregnant women should never be exposed to such ill-informed treatment again, it is essential to recognise that excluding pregnant women from research can also be harmful. Had appropriate studies of thalidomide been conducted in pregnant women prior to its widespread use, it is likely the harmful effects of the drug would have been recognised at an early stage, resulting in far fewer incidences of adverse pregnancies. The thalidomide saga is an example of what can go wrong when proper research is not conducted, but, paradoxically, it has become one of the key deterrents against doing research in pregnant women.

Moving forward, caution would obviously be needed when it comes to involving pregnant women in such research but, with thoughtful study design, and after initial safety and efficacy profiles have been established elsewhere, the risks involved can be minimised and great benefit can be gained.

There is a critical need for an industry-wide debate about the inclusion of pregnant women in therapeutic research. If a clearer ethical framework can be established for research during pregnancy and we can begin to view this population as complex rather than vulnerable, more trials will be able to both include, and be designed for, pregnant women. It is true that these studies will need to be prepared for a more critical scrutiny of their ethics and risk/benefit outcomes, but this does not mean researchers and physicians should be reticent to design and run such trials. Pregnant women, like all patients, need safe, effective, evidence-based treatment and this can only be achieved by involving them in medical research. In doing so, we can move away from protecting pregnant women and their foetuses from research, to protecting them through research.


1. The Nuremberg Code (1947). (1966) BMJ 313 (7070):1448.

2. Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10: Nuremberg October 1946–April 1949. Vol. 2. Washington, U.S.: Government Printing Office.

3. Foulkes, M.A., et al. (2011) Clinical Research Enrolling Pregnant Women: A Workshop Summary. Journal of Women's Health 20 (10): 1429-1432.

4. Lupton, M.G. & Williams, DJ (2004) The ethics of research on pregnant women: is maternal consent sufficient? BJOG 111 (12): 1307-12.

5. Macklin, R. (2010) Enrolling pregnant women in biomedical research. The Lancet 375 (9715): 632-633.

6. Mason JK, & McCall Smith, A (1999) Law and Medical Ethics. London: Butterworths.

7. Franks, ME, Macpherson, GR & Figg, WD (2004) Thalidomide. The Lancet 363 (9423): 1802-1811.


2. Connecting through a Neonatal Connectome Course-A student perspective 

By Eli Kinney-Lang, PhD Student in Engineering, University of Edinburgh

Who says summer camp isn’t for adults? As a group of students from the University of Edinburgh, we were lucky enough to attend the Current Issues in the Neonatal Connectome course at the University Medical Centre, Utrecht from June 12-16. It was a remarkable week filled with engaging conversations, a constant feeling of being inspired by scientific advances, and the joy of experiencing the local culture in Utrecht.

Each morning, the course featured four different talks from scientists and clinicians around the world. These talks provided a platform for speakers to discuss their research, their motivations, and their personal aims for improving the life of one of the most vulnerable populations on Earth: infants. After each talk, there was time set aside for questions and informal conversation, allowing for a less structured and more open discussion to emerge. The wealth of information provided touched on topics ranging from the enzymatic and cellular scope to broader explorations of behaviour in children on the autistic spectrum. With such a range of topics, it is hard to single out just one standout presentation or conversation. When asked about our favourite parts of the course, what we took away from it, and what the highlights were, here were some of the answers:

I had an amazing time in Utrecht, interacting with world class researchers in their own environment was a fascinating experience, and really allowed me to address some of my own scientific ideas and concepts with fresh paradigms.” – Eamon Fitzgerald

The main thing I took away from the course was a rekindled enthusiasm for neonatal brain research, and a feeling of privilege at being involved in such a collaborative and worthwhile field.” – Lorna Ginnell

One of the most remarkable aspects of the course was the ability for it to cover the link between the technical and clinical world, really getting to see how things are related across the two.” – Manuel Blesa Cábez

The knowledge, enthusiasm and kindness of the faculty were outstanding. They organized and hosted a networking dinner for us on top of putting together a range of plenary sessions and workshops which presented a complete view of the pipeline from scientific discovery to the translation of research into improved outcomes for the babies and families we care for. I am very excited to see the results from the forthcoming trial of stem cell therapy for treatment of neonatal stroke, and loved learning more on foetal MRI imaging from the keynote speaker, Dr. Moriah Thomason. Also, I really loved stroopwafels.” – Gemma Sullivan 

In addition to the presentation line-up, there were several options for two-day workshops organised as 2-3 hour sessions in the afternoons. The four main workshops focused on imaging techniques, including electroencephalography (EEG), Ultrasound/Near-infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS), Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI), and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). These workshops offered a deeper slice into the technical methodology underlying both the work presented in the morning talks as well as general connectome research. Thankfully, the workshops were designed well to suit a wide range of expertise among the attendees – they included introductions to theory and background, how the techniques are being used in current research, and even a practical component.

Another highlight of the course was the collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and the UMC hosts to coordinate one-on-one lab visits for each student from Edinburgh. Prior to attending the course, all students were asked to supply names of UMC faculty with whom they would like to schedule a lab visit. In some cases, spontaneous lab visits were offered by hosts to Edinburgh students in addition to the student’s original scheduled meetings. The willingness of all the UMC faculty to participate in these small, intimate conversations reflects the dedication of this course to truly provide a means for networking and building collaborations.

Also, on the first day of the course all student participants were divided into groups and assigned the task of developing a 5-10 minute mock-up proposa on a topic of their choice, to be presented on the last day of the conference. These pitches were evaluated and then given feedback by a panel of experts from the invited speakers. Inspiration from the week’s talks shone through the pitches, with many groups incorporating themes featured in the course. The student proposals ranged from monitoring how stress affects development in preterm babies to ways to improve recovery outcomes for perinatal stroke and using organoids for modelling early-life connectomes.

Overall, the UMC course provided a unique opportunity to learn and develop new skills, and to connect over shared interests. These shared interests are an important foundation for promoting creative thinking beyond the simple labels commonly attached to ourselves and our work – A Scientist; A Psychologist; A Clinician; A Radiographer; An Engineer. That truly was the highlight of the course, and something which will not be readily forgotten.

Eli and fellow course attendees. Photo Credit: Aurore Menegaux


3. Fixing the unfixable: could stem cells be the answer to curing spinal cord injury? 

By Naomi Melamed, third-year biomedical sciences student at St. George's University of London?

Every year 300,000 people, mostly between the ages of 20 and 29, are diagnosed with a spinal cord injury (SCI). Such damage occurs when any number of the 13.5 billion neurons that make up the spinal cord die. Patients with SCI suffer a variable degree of functional loss to a particular muscle group, depending on the site and extent of injury. Unsurprisingly, these kinds of injury are associated with a range of sociological and economic effects, with 60% of patients being unemployed and 20–30% suffering from depression. This adds to the urgency to find a cure (1).

Over the past 20 years, many researchers have turned to mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) as a possible treatment for SCI. MSCs are extracted from bone marrow and have the potential to differentiate into cells that make up bone, cartilage or fat. However, under the appropriate conditions, MSCs can also develop along neuronal lineages, making them a promising potential therapeutic treatment for replacing cells that are lost or damaged in SCI.

MSCs are favoured over stem cells of other lineages as they are anti-apoptotic, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumorigenic by nature. Trials are currently underway to investigate the viability of MSCs as an effective treatment. However, results to date have been mixed and researchers are also looking into alternative approaches. 

For example, cell therapies for SCI might be more effective if they were based on transplantation of neuronal cells rather than undifferentiated stem cells. To this end, researchers have been developing methods to generate neuronal cells from pluripotent stem cells, such as embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells (adult cells that have been converted into pluripotent stem cells). For example, a US–China collaboration have described a highly efficient method for generating motor neurons (2), while US researchers recently described a method for generating V2a interneurons and showed that they could integrate into the spinal cords of mice (3). Although many hurdles remain, these types of studies could one day provide a much-needed source of cells for treatment of SCI.


Therapeutic mesenchymal stem cell use in the central nervous system

Figure 1: Mesenchymal stem cells can differentiate into microglia and three types of cell that derive from neural progenitor cells. Each cell type produced contributes to the neuroregeneration process, depending on their lineage.


1. World Health Organisation (2013) Spinal cord injury. Available at [Accessed 7 May 2017].

2. Qu Q et al. (2016) High-efficiency motor neuron differentiation from human pluripotent stem cells and the function of Islet-1. Nat. Commun. 5:3449.

3. Butts JC et al. (2017) Differentiation of V2a interneurons from human pluripotent stem cells. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 114:4969–74.



By Jack Cooper, Graduate student in Cells and Systems Biology, University of Oxford

Santiago Ramon y Cajal, viewed by many as the father of neuroscience, once said that “the brain is a world consisting of a number of unexplored continents and great stretches of unknown territory”. Whilst much is still unknown in neuroscience, it is safe to say that those continents have been better mapped, though there is still some way to go.

One of the major barriers to this progress is the opaque nature of the brain. Optical imaging methods cannot visualise tissue at great depths because of light scattering, resulting from differences in the rate at which light travels in water and fat molecules. Single-photon and two-photon microscopy can only image as deep as 50μm and 800μm below the brain surface respectively, preventing complete visualisation of global neural projection patterns and cell population positions. Instead, many thin brain slices have to be imaged and then reconstructed into 3D structures later – both time-consuming and costly. That is until the development of CLARITY, a Stanford-developed technology resulting in transparent brain tissue.

Following injection of both formaldehyde, used to fixed the tissue, and hydrogels, the CLARITY process then heats the brain and removes fats via chemical or electrical means. This leaves a transparent tissue-hydrogel mesh that retains the tissue’s original three-dimensional structure (1), whilst endogenous biomolecules such as neurotransmitters, proteins, and nucleic acids are fixed in place.

By visualising this three-dimensional structure of neurons, as well as the expression and localisation of mRNA, proteins, and neurotransmitters in the context of those structures, CLARITY allows us to extend our understanding of brains in normal and disease states. The treated tissue is both permeable to large molecules and hardy enough to be washed - this enables multiple rounds of antibody labelling of proteins and in situ hybridisation of nucleic acids. Unlike traditional approaches, this technique generates a high volume of information about local morphology, such as synapse type, and global morphology, which is incredibly powerful for understanding network dynamics.

In their seminal paper, the Deisseroth lab used the technique on both the mouse brain, and on sections from the frontal lobe of an autistic individual. By analysing long distance neural pathways, they discovered that neurons in this region had joined together to form abnormal ladder-like connections. Whilst such patterns had been previously suggested at by animal models of autism, CLARITY was able to demonstrate this in human tissue. 

Since its inception, CLARITY has found great utility. It has been used to characterise many disease pathologies in three dimensions, including those involved with Alzheimer’s disease (2), multiple sclerosis and anxiety disorders, and is even being evaluated for applications in cancer and autoimmune disease diagnosis. In addition to this, the technique is uniquely positioned to better understand development, and the three dimensional movements and interactions of cells in the embryo. CLARITY is particularly useful for this as it can be used in a range of tissues beyond the brain, provided they aren’t too fibrous or pigmented; last year, for instance, the technique was successfully used to investigate the embryonic heart (3).

There are, of course, a number of disadvantages to CLARITY – namely the large start-up costs involved and the time taken for the clearing process to run, especially for larger tissue samples. This is all in addition to the time taken for immunostaining of such thick tissue, and an ~8% protein content loss that occurs during the process. However, despite this, it is still an exciting technological advancement towards understanding and relating brain circuit activity across multiple areas. So, even though CLARITY isn’t perfect, it holds great promise in helping us see through the mysteries of the brain.

CLARITY. Source: Deissoroth Lab.


1. Chung, K, et al. (2013) Structural and molecular interrogation of intact biological systems. Nature 497(7449): 332-337.

2. Ando K, et al. (2014) Inside Alzheimer brain with CLARITY: senile plaques, neurofibrillary tangles and axons in 3-D Acta Neuropathol 128 (3): 457–459.

3. Kolesová, H, et al. (2016) Comparison of different tissue clearing methods and 3D imaging techniques for visualization of GFP?expressing mouse embryos and embryonic hearts Hana Kolesová et al – using clarity on embryonic heart tissue. Histochem Cell Biol 146 (2):141–152 



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Summer 2017

Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

Joshua Au Yeung, MBBS, Inês Barreiros, Hannah Choi, Jack Cooper, Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD, Tamsin Nicholson, Patricia Rodriguez, Jamini Tharkar

  1. Can we use great apes to teach us how language evolved?
  2. First Neuroinformatics Symposium at BNA Festival
  3. EMBO EMBL Symposium on Neural Circuits in the Past, Present and the Future
  4. The 'Brain Diaries'

1. Can we use Great Apes to teach us how language evolved?

By Emily Benn, undergrad student in Neuroscience, University of Keele

It is thought that humans developed language due to the vast, and complex, social capabilities we possess [1]. However, the question of how language evolved is difficult to answer as verbal sounds do not leave any physical fossils. Scientists believe that to tackle this problem we can study animals to which humans are closest on a genetic level -the great apes [2].

The great apes are a family of primates that include species of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and humans. The intelligence of non-human great apes has been underestimated for a very long time and, ongoing research over the past 100 years has attempted to find out the extent of what these marvellous creatures are capable of [1].

The 1970s were when research in this area really started to develop. It was found that great apes have the capacity for language, but no means to use it. Due to physiological and neurological reasons, great apes cannot produce as many vast sounds as humans and therefore led scientists to question what would happen if great apes were taught to use sign language [3]. Great apes are the perfect candidates for the use of sign language as they have great control over the use of their hands, and impressive dexterity [3].

Some of the most famous research projects were Nim the chimpanzee and Koko the gorilla. During these projects, these great apes were taught to use American sign language. Nim was deemed to be an unsuccessful project as he failed to increase the length of his utterances after a 19 month period. However, Koko’s mean length utterances increased by over 33% in the same time period. 13% of Nim’s utterances were spontaneous compared to 41% of Koko’s. This disparity can be explained by the fact that Project Nim lacked organisation as he was taught by over 60 trainers (Koko was taught by 15 in total with 1 constant trainer) and as Nim grew older, he became a lot more aggressive [4].

Many scientists criticise this work as they believe that great ape language projects always fail. However, the line between success and failure is unclear and raises several questions. What do we mean by successful language acquisition? How many words in a sentence do they have to produce in order for it to be successful? Should the sentences be grammatically and structurally correct [3]? Many of these remain unanswered to this day. Nevertheless, research has moved on from trying to teach great apes language, to watching how great apes communicate with each other and, observing how complex this communication gets.

Despite the lack of consensus amongst the scientific community the fact that this kind of research has important implications is irrefutable. We can use the information gained from studying great apes to determine how humans might have developed language, and more importantly, what the main factors were that helped us to do so [1].


[1] Russon, A., Bard, K. and Parker, S. (1996). Reaching into thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Byrne, R. (1995). The thinking ape. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Wallman, J. (1992). Aping language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Bindra, D., Patterson, F., Terrace, H., Petitto, L., Sanders, R. and Bever, T. (1981). Ape Language. Science, 211(4477):86–88.

2. First Neuroinformatics Symposium at BNA Festival

By Leslie Smith, Professor of Computing, University of Stirling

Neuroinformatics combines neuroscience and informatics, aiming to develop and apply advanced tools and informatics-based approaches to interpreting neuroscience data, and enabling major advances in understanding brain structure and function.

Neuroinformatics has a long history in the UK. The UK Neuroinformatics Network was set up in 2004, becoming the UK Node [1] of the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Forum [2] (INCF) in 2008. It was initially funded by the MRC. The UK Neuroinformatics London meeting in May 2016 [3] resulted in the first Neuroinformatics symposium at the BNA Festival that I organised on 12th April [4], and the BNA Neuroinformatics Special Interest Group (SIG) proposed by Professor Marcus Kaiser and myself [5].

The Neuroinformatics Symposium started with Marcus Kaiser introducing the SIG, showing how Neuroinformatics could aid clinical, experimental and engineering-based approaches to understanding, and even re-engineering the brain ( I discussed why Neuroinformatics is critical. Sharing datasets (metadata and data), analysis tools and modelling techniques enables re-analysis of experiments, as well as comparisons across different tools and modelling techniques. Equally importantly they enhance reproducibility, a major issue for neuroscience.

Claudia Clopath (Lecturer, Bioengineering, UCL) discussed the onset and offset response in the auditory cortex. Interested in the causes and effects of LTP, and influences from environmental signals, she mixed experimental work with model-based data analysis, showing the importance of an informatics-based approach.

Tim Vogels (Henry Dale Fellow, Medical Sciences, University of Oxford) discussed what makes the “perfect synapse”. Interested in the effects of strengthening the pre- and post-synaptic mechanisms in the synapse, and in using models to examine the differences in these effects, he re-used data from 15 to 25 years ago, giving a real example of the importance of keeping data in a re-usable form.

Finally, Angus Silver (Professor of Neuroscience, UCL) discussed why modelling synapses matters. Synapse types in neural systems have very varied pre-synaptic spike rates. How does synaptic structure relate to function? He developed a repository for models of these and other neural circuitry, Open Source Brain [6] that enables model sharing, enhancing collaboration and re-use.

With over 100 delegates from different neuroscience areas attending, this reflects a strong and growing Neuroinformatics community within the BNA. Not only does Neuroinformatics provide a way of getting better value from experimental and modelling work, it helps with reproducibility, and this is critically important in future neuroscience.







3. EMBO EMBL Symposium on Neural Circuits in the Past, Present, Future

By Vinodh Ilangovan, PhD, Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen, Germany

The EMBO EMBL Symposium on “Neural Circuits in the Past, Present and Future” in Heidelberg, Germany on 14th-17th May served as an excellent platform for over 100 neuroscientists across the globe to understand the structure and function of neural circuits from a new perspective. The purpose of this symposium was to enhance the exchange of novel ideas and methodologies among scientists who work on diverse model systems from the molecular to the psychological level to unravel the complexity of neural circuits. The scientific organizers of the symposium Detlev Arendt (EMBL, Germany), Richard Benton (University of Lausanne, Switzerland) and Leslie Vosshall (The Rockefeller University, USA) encouraged open scientific exchange, while the conference organizers Ana Karen Lopez Montero and Gwen Swanderson (EMBL, Heidelberg, Germany) supported the meticulous academic festival through an interactive framework.

The symposium was structured into eight sessions ranging from origin and evolution of nervous system; emerging animal and organism models to study neural circuits; innovation in neuroscience technologies; neural mechanisms of motivation and action to neurogenetics; and computational approaches to decipher neural circuits. Around 100 individual talks and posters investigating the structure or function of neural circuits were presented. Some of the highlights of the opening session included discussing the role of neuromodulation in persistent individual behaviours of invertebrates and the genetic basis of parental care evolution in mammals. The second day of the symposium focused on the beauty and elegance of neural circuits through discussions on the origins, commonalities and differences of animal nervous systems. Jean-François Brunet (École normale supérieure, France) emphasized the need to revise and revive the past understanding of autonomic nervous system, which remained elusive for centuries.

An exciting session on neurotechnologies opened up the possibility to evaluate techniques such as two-photon holographic optogenetics, dynamic mapping of neural circuits and functional ultrasound imaging in awake animals.  Standard genetic model organisms such as the fruit fly, Drosophila and laboratory mouse dominated discussions on the understanding of circuits involved in decision-making, action planning and the emergence of complex behaviours. Special emphasis was put on the neural mechanisms of bodily self-consciousness and models of sensorimotor decision-making in humans. Computational approaches to understand how brains make complex decision with deterministic simple rules emerged as Leitmotiv of the circuit computations session.

Both organizers and participants ensured that time was devoted equally to inspiring talks and open discourse on research practices during coffee breaks and lunch. Poster sessions were very engaging and participants also had an opportunity to discuss rapid scientific communication methods such as preprints and open research platforms. Speed networking session held after dinner on the opening day of the symposium helped participants to step out of their comfort zones and foster interdisciplinary dialogues. A “Meet the Speakers” session during lunch break provided opportunity for early-career researchers to further discuss ideas and collaborations with eminent speakers. The evenings provided ample networking opportunities with an extravaganza of music and a picturesque backdrop of nature surrounding the conference centre.  In conclusion, having facilitated knowledge exchange and constructive discussions, the symposium can be considered a great success. Organizers and participants alike have renewed enthusiasm and motivation, and are looking forward to next year’s symposium.


Supplementary information: 

Participants of the symposium also tweeted to share their excitement about learning new insights into neural circuits with fellow scientists and tweeple across the globe.

Photographs from the symposium:

Richard Benton welcomes delegates of the symposium. (Picture quality may be bad but no copyright issue)


These are pictures taken by EMBL photographer.

Welcome to neural circuits.


Speed networking.


‘Meet the speaker’ session.


Poster session.


Summary of the long talks

Cori Bargmann (The Rockefeller University, USA) opened the first session discussing the role of neuromodulation in persistent individual behaviors of invertebrates. Hopi Hoekstra (Harvard University, USA) discussed the genetic basis of parental care evolution in deer mice.

The second day of the symposium focused on the origins, commonalities and differences of animal nervous systems. Apart from interesting short talks, an exciting overview on evolution of neural circuits was presented by Leonid L. Moroz (University of Florida, USA), Detlev Arendt (EMBL, Germany), Gáspár Jékely (MPI for Developmental Biology, Germany), Paul Katz (Georgia State University, USA), Marcus Stensmyr (Lund University, Sweden) and Ralf J. Sommer (MPI for Developmental Biology, Germany). Jean-François Brunet (École normale supérieure, France) emphasized the need to revise and revive the past understanding of autonomic nervous system. Hillel Adesnik (UC Berkeley, USA) presented an exciting technique to perform two-photon holographic optogenetics. Alipasha Vaziri (The Rockefeller University, USA) shared insights into a novel approach to dynamically map neural circuits, while Botond Roska (Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, Switzerland) demonstrated the use of functional ultrasound imaging to study visual processing in awake mammals.

Understanding of circuits involved in decision-making and action planning is still dominated by standard genetic model organisms such as fruit fly Drosophila and laboratory mice. Gero Miesenboeck (University of Oxford, UK) discussed the how brains make decision with time as constraint. Kenta Asahina (The Salk Institute for Biological Study, USA) presented the neural basis of strategic action choice process involved in aggressive behaviors of fruit flies. Scott Sternson (Janelia Research Campus- HHMI, USA) focused on how neurons encode behavioral states like hunger and fear. The session on neural functions in humans spanned the neural mechanisms of bodily self-consciousness by Olaf Blanke (EPFL, Switzerland) and models of sensorimotor decision-making by Daniel Wolpert (Cambridge University, UK).

Marta Zlatic (Janelia Research Campus- HHMI, USA) showed how conflicting valances through memory generates behavioral choice in small animals like Drosophila larvae. Leslie Vosshall (The Rockefeller University, USA) presented novel insights into paternal enforcement of mating behaviors in mosquitoes. Silvia Arber (Biozentrum University of Basel, Switzerland) discussed how motor circuits generate precise behavioral movements. Claire Wyart (ICM, France) provided evidence for the involvement of cerebrospinal fluid neurons in mechanosensation and animal locomotion. Anthony Leonardo (Janelia Research Campus- HHMI, USA) presented in simplified manner how brains use set of rules to implement actions such as capturing a prey.

4. 'Brain Diaries'

By Caroline Jahn, PhD student in Cognitive Neuroscience, Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires, Paris, France

From 9th March 2017 until 1st January 2018, the Brain Diaries exhibition is running at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, charting research into the development of the brain throughout life. On the first floor of the glass roof, visitors can learn about how the brain learns and how it ages. Created in collaboration with neuroscientists from University of Oxford, this educational exhibition aims to captivate both adults and children by using a variety of media, from posters to fine-detailed 3D-printed brains. Even if you are unable to visit the museum in person, the online version will ensure the legacy of this thought-project (

However, the scope of the Brain Diaries project goes beyond this single exhibition. Numerous satellite events are being held across Oxford, encompassing talks, film screenings, science fairs, and even discussions within some of Oxford boisterous pubs. Regardless of your interest or background, there is certainly an event for you! The goal is to show people modern neuroscience in action by understanding current insights, and how research methods can be effectively applied to explore the unknown.

On 18th March my lab ( participated in the “Brain Diaries Demos”. In our day-to-day research, we study brain chemicals such as dopamine. Dopamine often features in the media, but is frequently wrongly associated with pleasure and happiness (1). We therefore wanted to assess the degree to which this influences what people know about dopamine, and find entertaining ways of demonstrating what it really does. Under the attentive eyes of parents, children played our “Dopamine Dipper” marbles game and tried to discover which jar contained more red marbles to illustrate that dopamine provides a key learning signal in the brain. They also had a go at our “Heavy Feet Challenge” and decided if they wanted to put in extra effort to gain better rewards to show that dopamine is important for motivation and decision-making.

Overall, we all felt that the event provided a fun opportunity to remind ourselves that our research can and should be relevant and understandable to everyone. The very positive feedback from attendees gave us a great sense of accomplishment. The exhibition as a whole is already a triumph, with more than 15,000 visitors so far having enjoyed the chance to expand their scientific knowledge!


  1. Bramley, E. (2017) "Dopamine Dressing – Can You Dress Yourself Happy?" Available at [Accessed 24th April 2017].

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Spring 2017

Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

Natasha Gillies, Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD, Tamsin Nicholson

  1. Brain Prize Lecture 2016
  2. Neuropoetry

1. Brain Prize Lecture 2016

By Ana Bottura de Barros, PhD student in Neuroscience, University of Oxford

"... memory provides our lives with continuity. It gives us a coherent picture of the past that puts current experience in perspective. We are who we are because of what we learn and what we remember (1).”

This quote by Eric Kandel, from his autobiography 'In search of Memory', partially describes why I have pursued learning and memory as my field of study. It is for this reason that I have never felt so lucky in my life when the invitation from the Lundbeck Foundation to attend the Brain Prize Lecture (2) arrived via the BNA in my mailbox. The 2016 Brain Prize was given to 3 researchers that have shaped our understanding of how memory works in our brains: Tim Bliss, Graham Collingridge and Richard Morris - and I had the chance to see them talk.

The Lecture started with Tim Bliss who talked about how Long Term Potentiation (LTP) and transmission are linked. By explaining his experiments he was able to show that the chance of neurotransmitter release is increased with LTP induction. Then, Collingrigde illustrated the steps he undertook to explore the influence of Glutamate receptors on LTP, and see how different receptors were responsible for different phases of potentiation.

Just listening to these two talks was already a great experience. But as a behavioural neuroscientist, I would never have imagined that I would have the chance to hear Richard Morris describe how research linked LTP to behaviour. He talked us through O'Keefe's discovery of place cells, a finding that inspired his most famous work on the water maze. Next, he went on to show that Willshaw and Dayan's work on associative networks have important implications to linking LTP to memory representation. He could not finish without mentioning Whitlock's work on how learning induces LTP, thus linking LTP to behaviour.

Finally, to see a man who has achieved so much in his career tell us with great pride and excitement about his most recent work on dopamine release by the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) for novelty signalling should be inspiration enough for anyone in academia. And if that still was not enough, then the quick chat we had following the talks was a memory to be stored for a long term.

Richard Morris during his lecture. Photo Credit: Duncan Banks.


Richard Morris, Graham Collingridge, Tim Bliss Photo Credit: Duncan Banks.


1. Kandel ER (2006) In Search of Memory: The emergence of a new science of mind (W W Norton & Co.: New York).

2. The Brain Prize Lecture. Available at [Accessed 6th January 2017]

2. Neuropoetry

Pantoum By Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD, postdoctoral research assistant, Harvard University

In old age 

Why did he steal memories?

He was not a criminal:

The symptoms of ageing

People saw one loss after another


He was not a criminal

The mind rested

People saw one loss after another

It was dark, and murky


The mind rested

Why did he steal memories?

It was dark, and murky

The symptoms of ageing


Haiku By Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

In the mouse brain

Scanning ultrasound--

a promising procedure

to remove plaques


Double Tetractys By Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD



Am small

And I do

Control posture

I receive inputs from the spinal cord

And integrate them to fine-tune motion

I hold eighty

Per cent of

All brain



Free verse By Jack Cooper, undergrad student in Cell and Systems Biology, University of Oxford

Outside View

What is a neuron? he asks,

his own soaked in the old-world glamour

of great masters, where Bach and Brahms

battle for remembrance, and for tribute.

Where notes sit on sheets, subjective,

teasing breath through flute to give

new forms, new revisions

of performance first heard lifetimes ago.


He asks, mind soaked with traditions

where interpretation is truth,

and truth is not tested.


What is a neuron? He asks,

and I understand he does not want answers

to the mundane questions of chemicals

spilling through clefts,

nor membranes that seep ions

like sap bleeding from bark.

He asks how his skin senses the quickening warmth

of the silver in his palm,

how his fingers and lungs dance on the razors edge

between music and disaster.

He asks how he can hear sound,

but feel beauty.


Rhyming Riddle By Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

When life gets tough

Produced by a wide-ranging network

It will rise under a high load of work

Consistently correlated with complex mental tasks

It is also found to increase at key landmarks

Acts as carrier for cognitive processing across regions far apart

Try to guess this if you are smart


Diamante by Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

Momentary awareness


Goal-driven, top-up

Endogenous cuing, covert orienting

Train of thought, flash of light in the Periphery

Exogenous cuing, overt orienting

Stimulus-driven, bottom-up



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Autumn 2016

Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

Natasha Gillies, Tom Hall, Steven Jerjian, Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD, Andre Marques-Smith, PhD, Sophie Williams, Alicia Wilcox, Liam Wilson, PhD

  1. Introducing the wonders of the brain 
  2. A trip to Kolkata: Research heading to the East (Part I of III)
  3. A trip to Kolkata: Research life in the East (Part II of III)
  4. A trip to Kolkata: Global Research (Part III of III)

1. Introducing the wonders of the brain

By Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

Between the 20th and 24th June the Pakeman Primary School in Islington launched its new Science Lab with a series of exciting events. On Monday and Tuesday children learned about volcanoes, rocks and minerals in the Lab. On Wednesday the children met Safari Pete who got them in contact with a variety of wild animals including a snake, scorpion and barn owl to teach the children about the importance of conserving wild life.

As an enthusiastic STEM ambassador I was thrilled at having been invited the following day to introduce two classes of 7-9 year old children to the wonders of the human brain! I met the teachers and set up my presentation. Five minutes later I introduced myself to 30 children aged 8-9 years and explained to them the purpose of my visit. I continued the session by asking the children what they already knew about the brain to gage their level of knowledge. To my surprise, I saw nearly all hands up. The children were clearly very eager to share their knowledge with the rest of the class! Specifically, they knew that the kind of food we eat can have a specific effect on our brain. Moreover, they were aware that the brain is responsible for acquiring information from our environment via our five senses. In addition, they knew that the brain enables us to move our bodies, and helps us to have a conscious mind.

Impressed by their level of knowledge, I proceeded to tell them about the concept of plasticity and clarified its importance in the process of forming new knowledge and modifying behaviour. I further emphasised how the children themselves can influence their own brain development by challenging their mental and physical abilities on a daily basis using simple but novel ways. Needless to say, the children already knew that studying is an essential activity to ensure a healthy brain development. I additionally pointed out that spending time in nature, acquiring a second language, and learning to play an instrument as well as adequate sleep, healthy nutrition and plenty of exercise can all positively stimulate their brain development.

After this interactive introduction into my presentation, I showed the children a few slides that illustrated the structure of the human brain from various perspectives. With the help of these slides, and couple of brain handouts, I then moved into the practical part of my visit. Here children built models of the brain using pink playdoh that was kindly provided by the teachers. I thoroughly enjoyed answering children’s questions about the brain during this practical part, and they happily chatted amongst themselves whilst coming up with creative ways of moulding the different structures of the brain. At the end of the one hour session I was pleased to hear the children’s overwhelmingly positive response to the interactive and practical activities of my session. I felt truly inspired to have been part of such a fantastic team that over the course of one week helped launch the new Science Lab at Pakeman Primary School.

I felt very honoured to have represented the subject of neuroscience within that team. All in all, I hope that I helped the children learn a little bit about their brains and how to take care of them. In future I am looking forward to seeing more primary schools opening a Science Lab that provides young children with the opportunity to learn about new ways of looking at the world in a positive, encouraging and supportive environment.

Children wearing lab coats during the practical part of the session in their new Science Lab at Pakeman Primary School. Photo Credit: Jayanthiny Kangatharan.



By Joshua Au Yeung, final year medical student, Newcastle University

We stand in the midst of a revolution, the globalisation of urbanisation - one of the most pivotal social changes of the century (1). Cities and their populations are growing at an exponential rate and services are struggling to keep up, resulting in a host of problems, including overcrowding and struggles to meet basic needs of food, water, shelter, education and health. Eighteen out of the twenty-two most populated cities are now in developing countries and these cities will be impacted the most (1).

Kolkata, the medical, commercial and cultural hub of East India is a city that encapsulates the challenges of urbanisation and inequality. Boasting a population of 15 million (2), roughly four times the area of London and five times as dense, Kolkata is a city that is packed to its brim.

Merely 90 registered neurologists in Kolkata cater for the whole of East India and surrounding regions. It is not unusual for a neurologist to work seven days a week, averaging between 150-200 patients a day (3). This means that all their time is dedicated to clinical duty and none is left for quality scientific research.

Indeed, research papers published in India have little to no impact factor and 70% of papers are never cited. Research funding has stifled at a meagre 0.9% GDP for over 10 years (4, 5). However, doing research in India offers benefits that should not be overlooked: the large number of patients, rare untreated diseases, and the pathophysiological impact of poverty and malnutrition. As researchers abroad realise this, hence both funding and international collaborative projects are increasing (6). Expect to see a surge in joint research ventures from the western world, perhaps one that will match and benefit the growth of urban India.

A  market in Kolkata. Photo Credit: Joshu Au-Yeung.


1.        Gupta K, et al. (2006) Health and Living Conditions in Eight Indian Cities. Ministry of Health and Family Welfare document.

2.        Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India (2011) Census of India: West Bengal.

3.        Hrishikesh K (2016) Institute of Neuroscience- Kolkata. Interview conducted in January 21st, 2016.

4.        Bala A & Gupta BM (2010) Mapping of Indian neuroscience research: a scientometric analysis of research output during 1999-2008. Neurol India. 58(1):35-41.

5.        Shahabuddin SM (2013) Mapping neuroscience research in India – a bibliometric approach. Current Science. 104(12):1619-1626.

6.        Nature Editorial. (2015) "A nation with ambition." Nature 521(7551):125.


3. A TRIP TO KOLKATA: Research life in the East (PART II OF III) 

by Joshua Au Yeung, MBBS, MRes, Foundation Doctor, Pennine Acute Trust

Clear, colourless and glistening; liquor cerebrospinalis, or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), immerses our brain and spinal cord acting both as a cushion and a homeostatic buffer. Without CSF, not only would our neurones perish from electrochemical excitation, but our brains would collapse under their own weight, compromising blood flow, leading to a loss of cardiorespiratory function and coma.

CSF has a water-like consistency and composition like blood plasma: both containing a similar concentration of electrolytes and glucose. Litres of artificial, man-made CSF sit in various shaped beakers and flasks in the lab. Just like a chef, I concoct them using a carefully devised recipe.

The lab is a small, compact room filled to the brim with laboratory equipment, microscopes, computers and chemicals delivered from Britain. The lab sits on the top floor of a tertiary hospital: Institute of Neuroscience, Kolkata. Work is often disrupted by after-shocks from the tragic Nepal earthquakes reverberating through the building. The alarm rings, I quickly sprint down twenty flights of stairs to evacuate the hospital.

Neurosurgeons look for the eruption of sparkling CSF to mark the entry into the outermost layer of the brain: the dura. I wait eagerly by the surgeon’s side, with my beaker of cold artificial CSF. The patient is a 40-year-old gentleman suffering from epileptic seizures and headache from a large brain tumour, a “glioma”, measuring five centimetres in diameter. This is a rare sight; very few gliomas grow to that size without being detected and removed.

Once a piece of glioma is removed, it is carefully placed into the beaker, which is then locked into a secure box and oxygenated with a canister before being transported to the lab. The next step involves slicing the tumour into paper-thin slices and moving them into a pool of artificial CSF, recreating their physiological environment. Using sophisticated electrodes, neuronal activity and discharges can be measured in the tumour slices. I am interested in treating epileptic seizures deriving from tumoral glial cells.

Night falls and morning dawns. Experiments often take an arduous twenty four hours to complete as glioma tissue is rare. Not only is it prudent, but also ethical not to let any go to waste. With two slices yet to be tested, the peaceful silence is suddenly broken as a plastic cylinder drops onto the ground. The artificial CSF in the flasks oscillates and shakes violently; another aftershock. I stand up, finish my coffee and once again, prepare for my descent down the stairs.


4. A TRIP TO KOLKATA: Global Research (Part III of III)

by Joshua Au Yeung, MBBS, MRes, Foundation Doctor, Pennine Acute Trust

Several years have passed since research took me to the city of Kolkata, India. The experience highlighted the strength in research collaboration: how sharing knowledge, exchanging ideas and resources can help propel research forward. Since then, there have been many changes to the political and scientific climate in the United Kingdom. We are going to take a detour away from the east and examine the role that the UK plays on the global scientific stage. Political leanings aside, we ought to examine the likely impact of Brexit and what that means for researchers.

Statistically, the European Union is home to one fifth of researchers worldwide, yet generates over a third of all academic papers; an impressive 20% higher output than the US. Talented UK academics are free to collaborate with our neighbouring colleagues, with a reported 15-20% of staff in top academic UK universities originating from EU countries. These key collaborations have achieved some impressive feats including the Large Hadron Collider and the European Space Agency.

The UK receives an extraordinary amount of funding from the EU. The recent EU Horizon 2020 is an innovative research programme with ~80 billion euros of funding available over 7 years. There has already been 1.1 billion euros allocated to neuroscience research alone, with the UK being the top beneficiary. The aim of Horizon 2020 is to help fund research projects and reduce regulatory restrictions to help launch projects securely and quickly. Post Brexit, it is highly unlikely the UK will receive this level of funding.

The prevalence and cost of neurological conditions on the NHS are ever increasing given our ageing population. Dementia alone is estimated to cost the UK 26.3 billion pounds per annum. The EU joint programme Neurodegenerative Disease Research (JPND) is an organisation that attempts to improve our understanding and treatment of neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, by funding large-scale studies, for example the cognitive function and ageing study (CFAS I & II). Other large research organisations include international collaborations such as the international initiative for traumatic brain injury research, allowing researchers all over the world to make breakthroughs and optimise the management of traumatic brain injuries.

The enormity of neurological disorders represents one of the greatest challenges we face in the 21st century. To tackle this problem, our collective focus should be to advance our cause by enriching our shared passion of research and maintaining our strong global collaborations. After all, we will achieve more together than we will by working alone.

What are your thoughts on the recent political climate and how has it affected your institution? We would love to hear your opinion! Please email any comments to

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Summer 2016

Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

Inês Barreiros, Emily Benn, Tom Hall, Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

  1. getPROTECTED 
  2. MeetYourSocialBrain 
  3. CNS 2016 
  4. Brain Aware 
  5. Native Scientist

1. Edinburgh PhD students create workshop aimed at brain injury awareness in children

By Alessandra Dillenburg and Owen Gwydion James

Young children in their final years of primary school become more active by playing team sports such as hockey and football, and learning how to ride a bike. Appropriate instruction alleviates the risk of injury when taking part in these sports, however, as exposure to injury increases, so too should an awareness of the type of damage individuals are susceptible to. While most adults understand that hurting your head is different to hurting your body, children may not yet be familiar with this concept. This is where getPROTECTED comes in.

Under the guidance of Dr. Jane Haley at Edinburgh Neuroscience, the two PhD students Alessandra Dillenburg and Owen Gwydion James recently set up a novel workshop on both brain function and head protection. This workshop is the newest addition to the getBRAINY (get Busy Running Activities Inspiring Neuroscience in the Young) series of workshops hosted by Edinburgh Neuroscience. The workshop aims to teach 10 to11-year-olds about the brain, how it works, and why it is so important to keep it safe. When explaining the functions of the brain in everyday life and the consequences of damaging specific brain areas, the two PhD students hope to convey to young children that the brain has a reduced healing capacity compared to the rest of the body, and highlight helmet safety as a preventative action to injury.

The inspiration for getPROTECTED came from a previous workshop headed by Alessandra at the University of Toronto and a mutual interest in cycling and public outreach: "We run a fun activity where the kids have to ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ by matching different senses to specific lobes. We talk about protective gear for different activities, as well as what bicycle helmets are made of and how they work. Our final activity has the kids run an experiment with the aim of testing how well different materials can absorb the energy of an object. Overall, we hope that getPROTECTED will be a fun, interactive workshop where children get to know their brains and understand why they need to protect them".

The workshop began this spring and aims to recruit volunteers from the Edinburgh Neuroscience community to train and send out to other schools in the following academic year. If the workshop is well received, the PhD students hope to develop a nationwide initiative for injury prevention in children.

If you’d like to discuss this or set up something similar at your university, please send an email at


2. MeetYourSocialBrain at the Edinburgh International Science Festival

By Ksenia Kuznetsova and Vikoria-Eleni Gountouna

Between the 5th and 9th April 2016, the Nicodemus research group from the Institute for Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the University of Edinburgh organised a drop-in event entitled “Meet Your Social Brain” as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival 2016.

The two-week festival, one of Europe's largest science festivals and the first science festival to be founded in 1989, hosted a large number of scientists from different disciplines ranging from biomedical sciences to chemistry and engineering to educate visitors about the recent developments in science, and to raise social awareness of the importance of science and its application to real life. The aim of the neuroscience drop-in event was to teach both parents and children about the social function of our brains, emotional intelligence and the relation of social skills to mental health.

The drop-in event welcomed visitors of all ages. Members of the Nicodemus group and neuroscience student helpers chatted to children about brain anatomy and brain functions. While the youngest visitors got involved in creating anatomical brain hats, or emotional clocks that indicate one’s emotional state, older children, along with their parents and caregivers, enjoyed live neuroeconomic games and learned about the benefits of cultivating trust and cooperation in relationships. All games involved a reward of candy, proportional to the players’ winnings.

Adults and older children were also invited to an informal chat about ongoing research involving neuroimaging techniques, genomics and their role in mental health. Over the course of the festival data were collected as part of a pilot study to investigate developmental trajectories of socio-economic traits and the effect of family relationships on game play strategies. All in all, an estimated number of 2988 people visited the drop-in event during the 5 days, averaging almost 100 people per hour! Many thanks therefore go to everyone who helped make this event a success, with a special thanks to the mental health charity MQ, Edinburgh Neuroscience and its scientific coordinator Dr Jane Haley, and to all volunteers.

Image courtesy of Douglas Robertson Photography


3. Cambridge Neuroscience Seminar 2016

By Julia Gottwald and Sally Jennings

On 17th March 2016, Cambridge Neuroscience organised the 28th Cambridge Neuroscience Seminar. Hosted by the Downing site campus, this meeting saw more than 300 delegates gather to attend a highly interactive symposium that showcased cutting-edge research on the theme of “New Directions”. The meeting was opened by Professor Bill Harris, head of the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience. He thanked the seminar organisers, and especially Dr Dervila Glynn, for their hard work, and promised an exciting day of talks and posters.

The first presenter was Dr Rick Livesey who explained how the human cerebral cortex develops differently from other primates and mammals to contain more cortical neurons. This higher number of neurons is thought to be one of the reasons for our higher cognitive abilities. Next, Dr Lucy Cheke presented a new way of measuring memory in humans. She and her colleagues have developed an innovative spatial working memory task which was used to assess memory in obese subjects. They found that a higher BMI was correlated with impairments in memory, offering new insights into the relationship of eating behaviour and cognition. The final speaker of the first session was Dr Tiago Branco, who investigates instinctive behaviours. His research focuses on mice and their eating behaviour in threatening environments. Dr Branco explained how mice compute the decision to eat or escape in such environments.

Session two started with Dr Timothy O’Leary, who looked at an important challenge of our central nervous system: the need to maintain stable conditions and the ability to adapt to environmental changes. Dr O’Leary’s computational models show that organisms cannot be both perfectly stable and flexible: the option of flexibility comes at the price of less tightly controlled mechanisms. This talk was followed by Dr Kyle Treiber, who studied both neuroscience and criminology. She wants to develop a model of how and why individuals make the decisions to commit a crime, focusing on both biological and environmental factors. The session was concluded by Dr Sam Chamberlain who spoke about behavioural addictions. Traditionally, addictions were thought to be related to substances, such as alcohol or drugs. However, Dr Chamberlain argued that certain behaviours, such as compulsive gambling or stealing, show addictive characteristics. Individuals often crave the behaviour and show withdrawal symptoms when they abstain, similar to substance dependence.

The morning talks were followed by a lunch break and extended poster session. More than 60 researchers from Cambridge Neuroscience presented their recent research and had the opportunity to exchange ideas with other scientists. The posters covered the whole spectrum of neuroscience – from molecular and computational to cognitive and clinical neuroscience. Many delegates were also active on twitter during the lunch break and throughout the meeting. Tweets under the hashtag #CNS2016 allowed people from anywhere in the world to follow the symposium.

The afternoon session continued with a highly varied programme about predation, pain and psychosis. Dr Paloma Gonzalez-Bellido began the session by discussing hunting tactics of insects. She engaged the audience with flies’ optimal attack-trajectory, combing speed and acuity, using videos. Dr Ewan St John Smith continued to engage the audience with adorable videos of naked mole-rats. In contrast to other animals, naked mole-rats do not perceive acid as painful. Dr Smith is particularly interested in this acid-insensitivity of the naked mole-rat as a vehicle for understanding arthritic pain. Professor Paul Fletcher concluded the session with a presentation on psychosis. He argued that we can consider even our normal perception as a “controlled hallucination”: our brain tries to compute a model of the world with limited sensory information and ambiguity. This could serve as model for exploring psychosis, with false perceptions and irrational beliefs as inferential processing errors.

Professor Sarah Tabrizi, director of the Huntington’s Disease Centre at University College London, gave the Plenary Lecture. She discussed the great strides her team has been making in meeting the therapeutic challenge for Huntington’s disease. Huntington’s is a genetic disorder so Professor Tabrizi is focussing on a gene target. Indeed, her team has started work on the first ‘gene silencing’ trial in Huntington’s disease, a technique in which the expression of a gene is prevented. Afterwards, Professor Angela Roberts gave the closing remarks and the winners of the poster prizes were announced. The awards went to Matilde Vaghi for her poster on brain connectivity in OCD and to Dr Naotaka Horiguchi for his poster on the neural basis of contingency learning.

The conference was then opened to the public for a talk from Professor Giovanna Mallucci, University of Cambridge, about new directions in dementia treatment. Professor Mallucci’s new approach is to stave off neuronal loss, and associated worsening of dementia symptoms, by reducing the rate at which synapses are lost. Professor Mallucci’s approach considers that when mice cool and hibernate, their synapses are dismantled and reformed. Synapse recovery could be a valuable new direction for fighting dementia by trying to delay the symptoms.

The day ended with a drinks reception and exquisite conference dinner at Downing College. A worthy end to a popular meeting bringing together neuroscientists from Cambridge and beyond.

This report was first published on the CamBRAIN website.  

Images courtesy of Cambridge Neuroscience.


4. ‘Brain Aware’: a student-led public engagement activity at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford

By Dr Nicholas Irving

Public engagement can help you get a different perspective on your research and gain valuable communication skills. It can also raise the profile of your research area, which can sometimes contribute to maximising research impact.  For these reasons, major funders nowadays will expect researchers to be active in public engagement; informing, consulting and collaborating with the wider public. Oxford has an active club for early career neuroscience researchers, the Cortex Club, founded in 2009. The Club’s main role is organising small informal discussions and debates on cutting-edge topics and significant, challenging issues in neuroscience. However, it also provides a fantastic forum where graduate students and early career researchers can work together on public engagement activities sharing their ideas and gaining experience.

A key part of the Oxford Neuroscience public engagement calendar is the Dana Foundation Brain Awareness Week held in March. This global campaign aims to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research. Brain Awareness Week 2016 was held from 14th- 20th March and the Cortex Club was as always keen to take part. Working with Silke Ackermann and Stephen Johnson from Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science, the students organised ‘Brain Aware’: a day of fun and engaging activities to inform the public about neuroscience research into a number of areas such as stroke and neurodegeneration. Graduate student Cristiana Vagnoni explained: “By using an established venue like a museum we knew the visitors would be ready and willing to be engaged.  It also enabled us to take advantage of their communication channels to help promote the event.  However, the programmes are drawn up months in advance and so you need to start planning early”. The students were also able to make use of the BNA Local Group Representative and Neuroscience Coordinator Dr Nicholas Irving who promoted ‘Brain Aware’ within the broader programme of Brain Awareness Week activities taking place across Oxford.  This meant that they could benefit from shared publicity materials with a common design.

On the day running a public engagement activity can be very exhausting and so a small army of volunteers came along to help make ‘Brain Aware’ successful. As one volunteer, Emily Hinson, pointed out: “It’s very important to know who your target audience is so that you can tailor activities to suit them.  We knew there would be a large proportion of families with children and so we made sure there was something for everyone”. Emily coordinated a range of demonstrations centred around research into stroke rehabilitation. These included throwing bean bags into a bucket while wearing prism glasses used to treat patients with hemispatial neglect.  Students also brought along an EEG-based toy that is a fun way to introduce non-invasive imaging technologies and a brain stimulation kit which can be used to augment the beneficial effects of motor rehabilitation.

Students Lev Tankelevitch and Cristiana Vagnoni used ‘Brain Aware’ to try out some new activities including a cockroach leg experiment, which involved live recording of electrical activity from neurons inside a real, isolated cockroach leg. For this they used Spikerbox, which provides a simplified but complete recording setup fitting in the palm of the hand. Electrical signals from two pins placed inside the leg are amplified and displayed live on a connected monitor. This demo was set up as an experiment for the public to perform. Visitors used a magnifying glass to observe tiny hairs on the cockroach leg, which are connected to neurons inside and allow the insect to sense its environment. They were then encouraged to brush the hairs and observe the live neural response on the monitor – direct evidence of how sensory information is coded using electrical signals. They also used electrical current from the laptop to stimulate the leg and activate the nerve-muscle system, making the leg move and illustrating that neurons also use electricity to activate muscles and create movement.

In addition, these two students demonstrated a nerve-muscle interface experiment, in which they used a skin electrode to record the electrical activity in the forearm muscle of one volunteer, amplified this activity, and used it to electrically stimulate the nerve in the forearm of another volunteer. This (harmlessly) activated the muscle and made their fingers twitch – a strange and funny, but not painful, sensation. Essentially, one person's intentional muscle movement controlled the nerve (and muscle) of another, demonstrating that all nervous systems, including ours, use electrical activity to communicate.

Student Steven Chance used ‘Brain Aware’ to showcase an educational Xbox game about Alzheimer’s disease "Battle A.D." In this, visitors were able to battle tau mutants, collect stem cells and travel to the dentate gyrus to defeat Alzheimer's disease. The game was obviously particularly appealing to younger visitors (children and teenagers), familiarising them with terminology relating to brain anatomy and pathology. He also brought along a microscope with slides of human brain sections of Alzheimer’s pathology that had been cleared for public display. This enabled visitors to relate the cartoon game versions of pathology to the real-world examples through the microscope.

‘Brain Aware’ was aimed at everyone from age 6 and upwards and so student Sophie Avery brought along arts and crafts materials for children’s activities. These included making plasticine brains with different coloured cortical areas encouraging the young people to think about how different brain regions have different roles.  Another activity which proved very popular was making pipe cleaner neurons.  This helped visitors to learn about the structure of brain cells and how they link together into neural networks. Sophie commented “It is important to engage children in science from a young age, when they are curious and receptive. I really enjoyed explaining neuroscience to a range of children at the event, and was amazed by how perceptive and sharp they were.”

It is essential to perform an evaluation exercise to seek feedback from the public on what they thought of ‘Brain Aware’. This enables you to learn what went well and not so well and therefore constantly improve your public engagement activities.  Therefore, visitors were encouraged to complete a short evaluation survey. The visitors’ interactions and feedback throughout the day were very encouraging and the results confirmed this. Visitor comments included: “Very engaging. A clear demonstration of how we produce and receive electrical signals. A lot of fun!” “Loved how you all took the time to explain to our little ones – thank you.” “Learned a lot about neurons and found it fascinating!” In the end the Museum counted a total of 672 people who visited ‘Brain Aware’. Summing up ‘Brain Aware’, Lev Tankelevitch and Cristiana Vagnoni said: "This was our first time independently organising a demonstration stall, and it couldn’t have been more successful. The enthusiasm, curiosity, and support that the visitors showed made the experience wonderful, and only strengthened our belief that scientists shouldn’t shy away from making their methods accessible to the public."

Images courtesy of Dr Nick Irving


5. ‘Native Scientist’: science outreach session in your native language

By Inês Barreiros

‘To empower immigrant communities through science outreach’ - this is the motto of the ‘Native Scientist’, a non-profit organisation, which promotes science and language-integrated learning. Collaborating with international scientists, the Native Scientist organises science outreach sessions for bilingual school children with immigrant backgrounds.

In these sessions children have the opportunity to develop their multilingual skills by practicing a language that is not spoken in the country they currently live in. At the same time, pupils get to learn about science from real scientists and to know more about STEM-related careers. This gives voluntary scientists the opportunity to develop their communication skills while increasing the impact of their work through science outreach that is aimed at better social integration.

When it was first founded in 2013, ‘Native Scientist’ promoted sessions in London exclusively but it has now expanded. They are now organising UK wide science outreach sessions in the languages Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Greek and German. They are reaching out to Europe as well by organising initiatives in Germany and France. Their aim is to increase both the number of school sessions and the range of languages covered.

I had the chance to participate in one of these wonderful sessions that was held at the City of London Academy in Islington. During this Portuguese class that was led by Dr Sara Marques, Dr Delfim Duarte, Dr Sara Trabulo and myself, the pupils learned about a range of scientific subjects including cancer, cell migration, disease-causing parasites and the workings of the brain. Despite their varying personal interests or hobbies, the children showed abundant amounts of curiosity and were interested in learning about the aforementioned scientific topics. They were also curious about what it is like to be a scientist and what motivates scientists to pursue their fascinating scientific endeavours. The opportunity to talk to children about my research and my passion for neuroscience turned out to be an incredibly rewarding and memorable experience, one that I can truly recommend.

With a number of sessions that are being planned for the next months, the Native Scientist is currently looking for more voluntary bilingual scientists. To get involved and have the opportunity to talk about your work and passion for science while inspiring young children, get in touch with the Native Scientist.

Images courtesy of NativeScientist 2016


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Spring 2016

Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

Inês Barreiros, Natasha Gillies, Yuhua Guo, Katie Hoban, Davis Howett, Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

  1. WANCM 2016
  2. A View on Outreach 
  3. LSNeuro Conference 2016 
  4. Studying for a Masters in Neuroscience
  5. 4th Neuroscience to Neurology National Conference

1. 1st Research Workshop on ‘Auditory Neuroscience, Cognition and Modelling’ 2016

By Jayanthiny Kangatharan, PhD

On Wednesday 17th February Queen Mary University of London hosted the inaugural research workshop on ‘Auditory Neuroscience, Cognition and Modelling’. This sold-out workshop brought together around 100 researchers from a range of neuroscience, cognitive and computational disciplines to discuss novel insights into the neuro-cognitive mechanisms of processing sound, speech and music.

Keynote lectures were delivered by Professor Elvira Brattica on the automatic and conscious processing of musical sound features in the brain; Dr Jean-Julien Aucouturier on the real-time transformations of emotional speech; and Dr Richard E. Turner on probabilistic models for natural audio signals. Additionally, attendees were captivated by six intriguing talks on such subjects as ‘EEG-based emotion detection in music listening’, ‘contextual influences on the neural encoding of speech sounds’ and ‘graphical modelling of neurological data in EEG/MEG’.

The one-day workshop included a poster session, in which 23 research posters were put on display, offering participants the opportunity to engage in a more in-depth exploration of the latest research in speech and music processing. Some notable highlights included ‘the adaptive effects of frequency on the auditory cortex’, and ‘the hierarchical nature of continuous speech processing’. By covering a wide diversity of topics, the session allowed attendees to gain a more profound understanding of how and why particular methods are used in current research. Topics ranged from ‘EEG-powered soundtrack for interactive theatre’ to ‘modelling transfer learning of polyphonic musical structure’.

Between sessions, participants enjoyed ample opportunities to network and socialize both during lunch and tea breaks and for a time following the workshop. Through this, successful collaborations could be cultivated across multiple disciplines. Numerous participants spoke favourably of the workshop and feedback was very positive, with one attendee commending the large number of consecutively high quality talks presented that combined ”strong theoretical grounds with methodological innovation”.

All in all, the innovative research-based event succeeded in bringing together researchers from a variety of disciplines including signal processing, auditory cognitive psychology and neuroscience. This opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration will be an important step in establishing a coherent picture of what the brain is computing when it processes sound, speech and music. In view of the promising success of this first workshop, organizers are now considering establishing a workshop series that could be hosted by a different institution on each occasion. In addition, there is optimism for developing a research network that might be facilitated by such events. If you would like to know how you could get involved in the organization of the next research workshop on ‘Auditory Neuroscience, Cognition and Modelling’, send an email to


2. A View on Outreach

By Thomas Hallam

Choice of university is perhaps the most important decision I have had to make. Studying at the University of Southampton has greatly influenced my subject interests, determined my research experience, and has instilled ideas for a future career path I wish to pursue.

I am currently a third year Biomedical Science student hoping to study for a PhD in a neuroscience subject. I recently volunteered to help run a Sixth Form  outreach event hosted by members of the University of Southampton Biological Sciences department and the Southampton Neuroscience Group. The aim of the outreach event was to show students what it is like to study Neuroscience/Biomedical Science at university, by educating them about the complexity of the human brain and research at Southampton to help us understand this fascinating organ.

The outreach day provided students with the opportunity to attend laboratory workshops, a university style lecture and talk with current undergraduate students, PhD students and academics about all aspects of university and neuroscience.

My role was to guide the students through the various workshops, which gave me a great opportunity to talk honestly and openly about studying my degree and studying at Southampton. It was fantastic to talk with students in a position that I had only been in three years before, and to be able to answer many of the questions that I had before coming to university.

I think that the purpose of outreach is different for everyone that attends. For some, the event  was important in making students aware of Neuroscience as a potential degree/career option, and for others the day provided an opportunity to realise the diversity of the subject. But the importance of outreach, in my opinion, is to provide those attending with the knowledge to make an informed decision whether or not they want to study neuroscience by introducing them to both an unfamiliar and interesting environment. And based on the feedback received, it is clear that we were successful in our outreach event. One student wrote: ‘Biology/ Neuroscience didn’t originally interest me but today changed my opinion’.

I hope that Southampton and other universities can continue to provide outreach events to attract more students to pursue a career in neuroscience, and that as an aspiring neuroscientist, I am able to continue to promote the study of what I consider to be such a fascinating subject.


3. London Students Neuroscience Conference on 6th&7th Feb 2016

By Steven Jerjian

On 6th and 7th February 2016, Imperial’s South Kensington campus hosted LSNeuroN2016, the inaugural London Students’ Neuroscience Conference. The conference was organised by the London Students’ Neuroscience Network (LSNeuroN), a collaboration between the student-led neuroscience societies (NeuroSocs) at UCL, King’s, Imperial, Queen Mary’s, St. George’s Medical School, and now Goldsmiths. The sell-out event saw 400 students gather to attend a series of inspirational talks and workshops by world-leading academics and clinicians from across the field.

Keynote talks were delivered by neuroscientists John Donoghue, Sir Colin Blakemore, Maria Grazia Spillantini, and 2014 Nobel Laureate Professor John O’Keefe, on motor control, perception, neurodegenerative disease, and the hippocampal cognitive map, respectively.

Meanwhile, parallel-running symposium sessions organised by the member neuroscience societies of LSNeuroN, allowed a more in-depth exploration of a wide variety of topics. Over the two days, these included a neuropathology workshop featuring a live human brain dissection, panel discussions on neuroscience-inspired artificial intelligence and the interactions between art and neuroscience, as well as fascinating speaker-led symposia on neuro-oncology, neurodegenerative diseases, psychiatric disorders, traumatic brain injury, and more.

In addition, over 40 students presented posters on their own research, with prizes (including a free 1-year BNA membership) awarded for the best presentations in both PhD and non-PhD categories. Exhibitor stands gave students the opportunity to engage with companies selling neuroscience-relevant products during lunch and coffee breaks, and an evening wine reception on the first day encouraged plenty of mingling!

Feedback received has generally been extremely positive, with many students and speakers particularly impressed by the professional level of organisation of a student-led event, the breadth and depth of topics covered, and the quality of invited speakers.

Although the first conference organised on this scale for students, we hope that the great success of LSNeuroN2016 will lead to many more in the coming years, possibly on a biennial basis, bringing together more students and building on the success of this conference. If you are interested in finding out more about LSNeuroN or any of the neuroscience societies, then visit our website at, follow us on social media, or send us an email at!

LSNeuroN would like to thank all sponsors of this event, including the British Neuroscience Association, for their generous support and encouragement.


4. Studying for a Master's in Neuroscience at Southampton

By Thomas Hallam

The four-year, integrated Master's in Neuroscience (MNeuroSci) course at the University of Southampton has been an engaging, fascinating and challenging experience. It has provided me with the opportunity to work with multiple PIs, research fellows and PhD students, all whilst being part of a faction of undergraduates striving to produce results, meet deadlines and somehow manage to enjoy the social side of university in parallel.

In our penultimate and final years of study we are trusted to manage our own time. I initially felt daunted by the weight of responsibility that a long lab project presents, but quickly got used to working under pressure and trying to steer the course of my own science by designing experiments and presenting my own data. The MNeuroSci course allows you to focus on the subjects that interest you most, which in my case is the investigation of neurodegenerative pathologies.

A major challenge of the MNeuroSci has been returning froma four-month summer to find an incredible number of milestones to be achieved in the final year if you are aiming to obtain a good grade. From my point of view, as aspiring neuroscientists, we have the most interesting selection of modules available to us. However, they are often also the most difficult, with a heavy workload that takes a while to adapt to, until after the first couple of months, when we really get into the swing of things.

A chief component of the MNeuroSci involves gaining a greater understanding of the complexity of the brain ans its function, both at the molecular and morphological level. It also focuses on widening our experience of scientific research in general. We are encouraged to attend a weekly seminar, which researchers from around the country and beyond are invited to visit the university and present their data. These seminars allow a broader understanding of the research being undertaken in lab groups around the world. We are also encouraged to attend the local Southampton Neuroscience Group (SoNG) seminar series, which offers the opportunity to learn about neurological pathologies and new discoveries, which are otherwise untouched or only superficially mentioned in lecture materials.The seminars provide a real insight into the complexities of designing controlled experiments and producing robust assays.

The novel and prominent aspect of our MNeuroSci course is the 'Advanced Neuroscience' module that was introduced this year. Through ten workshops with experts in a particular aspect of neurologically-based biochemistry, pathophysiology or pharmacology we are able to discuss, in depth, what is for many, a life’s work. A recent workshop explored the use of solid state NMR to elucidate the structure of disease-causing protein aggregates in the brain. The workshop brought to light the idea that distinct Amyloid protein structures could drive differences in pathological progression between patients suffering from Alzheimer’s. This discovery could facilitate personalised treatment plans dependent on a patient’s specific Amyloid fibril structure.

I believe that the final year of the MNeuroSci course prepares you far more thoroughly for the world outside of university than the initial 3 years of the degree. It is a comfortable transition, in which teaching through lectures and seminars is coupled with the opportunity to conduct your own scientific study. Fortnightly workshops enable real intimate contact time with lecturers, inspiring further research. Your daily workload is entirely up to you: it is your decision regarding how many seminars you attend, or how much writing or lab work you get done on any given day. As such, I am confident that the  MNeuroSci course will unlock doors to many different research environments, and hence enable a more fluid conversion towards undertaking a PhD.

5. 4th Neuroscience to Neurology National Conference

By Anna Bryans

On Saturday 6th February the Edinburgh University Neurological Society (EUNS) hosted their 4th Neuroscience to Neurology National Conference. The EUNS conference aims to bring together experts and students in the specialties of neuroscience, neurology and psychology.

The event proved to be our largest to date, attracting over 140 students from across the UK. The conference provided students the opportunity to present their research and we enjoyed a very high standard of poster presentations and oral presentations which covered a range of disciplines. In between student presentations, leading experts in the fields of regenerative neurology, psychiatry and the UK Biobank delivered engaging and thought-provoking lectures which highlighted the significance of both historical and existing advances in research. The afternoon workshops addressed diverse topics within neuroscience and neurology. They ranged from neurotrauma and nerve conduction studies to careers advice and the neuroscience of recovery. Prizes were awarded to the three top poster and oral presentations. Judges were also full of praise for the essay submissions to the EUNS essay competition which discussed “A historical figure in the field of Neuroscience, Neurology or Psychology”.

We are very grateful to all who participated and to the BNA for supporting our event. Overall, the conference emphasised how the integration of science, medicine and psychology can help us to understand how our brain functions in both health and disease.



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