Tuesday, 4 April 2017

3 years on...

Happy 3 year anniversary to Mind the Brain! This anniversary certainly feels like it has creeped up much more quickly than the previous two, perhaps because so far this year I haven't been keeping up with posting quite as much - but I'm definitely going to try to change that soon.

As I've said in previous years, it's crazy to think how much this blog has had an affect on my life - and possibly how it has affected opportunities that I've had. This past year I've been working on my MSc in Science Communication, a course I possibly wouldn't have considered had I not found how much I enjoyed blogging and describing esoteric scientific topics to those who read my posts. Aside from my course, I've also been searching for jobs that reflect my interests that have piqued through blogging, namely science writing, editing and publishing. It's amazing to think that my future career path may have been partly decided by choosing to start a blog 3 years ago today.

It's also interesting to consider what point I was at in the previous 'anniversaries' my blog has been through - last time I wrote a post like this I was in my final year of my BSc course at university (which translates loosely as extremely stressed!), and had actually used my blog as part of my final year project. Since then I've graduated and started my MSc, completed various work experience placements, attended networking events, been selected from 1000s of blogs for 'best post of the week', and even progressed through to later stages of blog awards! 

Graduating from my BSc in July 2016.

Making it to the second round of the UK Blog Awards 2017 was extremely exciting for me, and although I didn't make it any further I'm proud to have made it into the competition at all! The round I was eliminated from was based purely on voting by readers of shortlisted blogs - something I knew would be near impossible for Mind the Brain. Although I feel extremely proud to have reached 14,000 views, in the grand scheme of blogging it's minuscule! But, I never started writing this blog with the sole intention of gaining huge view counts or masses of comments. As I've written before, Mind the Brain started as a simple way to discuss and keep up with neuroscientific topics. Neuroscience is a pretty niche subject in itself, so it was definitely gratifying to receive comments on posts from people who didn't study the same course as me, or sometimes didn't even have a science background. Knowing from people's comments that they've enjoyed a post I worked hard on is much more gratifying to me than any number of views on my blog. 

This cheesy post is basically just a massive thank you to anyone who has taken the time to read my blog, comment on posts, follow Mind the Brain's social media accounts etc - I'm so grateful! For the rest of this next year I'm going to be posting much more often, and hope to hear from some of you in the comments again soon. As I've noted before, I am still as interested as ever to learn more about the brain, and I hope just one person who has read any of my posts in the last two years might be inspired and feel the same way! 

Please let me know in the comments if there is anything you would like me to write about in the future :)

Saturday, 31 December 2016

What does 2016 mean for science?

2016.. A year of huge political change, instability and adjustment. It has been an undeniably intense year. But what does it all mean for science? What other things have happened this year that will change the course of science in the future?

The world has certainly changed a lot in 2016.
Source: Pexel
Here are some of the crazy, awe-inspiring and exciting things that happened in 2016 and how they have affected, or been affected by, science.

A head transplant was successfully carried out on a monkey
The successful transplant could have implications for potential head transplants for humans
Source: BBC/ThinkStock
In mid-January, the first successful head transplant was reported to have been carried out on a monkey. However, it's worth noting that the scientist reporting this news is the same scientist hoping to carry out a human head transplant next year. Whilst the idea of this operation seems slightly insane at the moment, it may be no different to the initial opposition to many other transplants that are now common, such as liver, kidney etc. Read more about it here.

Gravitational waves were recorded for the first time
Black holes colliding and merging, creating gravitational waves
Source: LIGO/Wikimedia Commons
Over 100 years ago, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves, but it was not until February this year that they were actually recorded. The waves, which are ripples in the curvature of spacetime, are created by massive events in space, such as two black holes colliding. The recording of these waves actually happening is huge for the scientific community, and some say we may be able to use this knowledge to look further back in time than ever before. To learn more about this topic, check out Vox's coverage here.

Brexit
The Large Hadron Collider, the largest particle accelerator in the world, is expected to be affected by Brexit.
Source: The New Statesman
The UK voting to leave the European Union on the 23rd of June shocked many, and threw major aspects of society into uncertainty - jobs, research, funding, to name a few. Funding is a huge part of scientific research, and is entirely vital in some cases. The Large Hadron Collider, for example, depends on international collaboration of scientists, which in turn depends on funding and investment from a variety of countries through co-operation. Aside from this, leaving the EU means that much of the funding that various UK-based scientists depend on is no longer available - even the funding this is still open to applications will only be a fraction of what was previously offered. Reflecting these views, a poll from the journal Nature in late March this year found 83% of researchers favoured Remain, with only 12% supporting Leave. Read more about this here.

World's first baby born using 3-parent technique
Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy was honed as a technique to produce a '3-parent baby' this year.
Source: ScienceNews
In September, the world's first 3 parent baby was born. I've discussed this exciting news in a previous blog post, available here. In essence, a baby was born to a couple who had previously suffered 4 miscarriages and given birth to 2 other babies that had died soon after. The new technique that allowed the parents to give birth to a healthy baby used a form of IVF in which mitochondrial DNA comes from a third person (the 'third parent'), in addition to DNA from both of the parents. The technique was declared legal in October last year here in the UK, and the hopes are that it will help parents around the world with mitochondrial diseases to give birth to healthy children in the future.

Trump was elected
The election of Trump means uncertainty for science.
Source: Cornell Current
Unless you've been living under a rock, the fact that Trump was elected in November won't come as news to you. In a presidential campaign filled with inaccurate scientific information (among many other unmentionables), it's astounding that he was still elected. Trump's denial of climate change (in his words, "a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese") is a sign of potentially what is to come during his presidency; will there be shifts in governmental funding for various science programmes or research? How will Trump choose to deal with climate change? There are many uncertainties as to how science will be affected over the next 4 years, but perhaps Trump's recent plan to get rid of Nasa climate change research gives an idea of his plans. Read more about it in The Guardian here.

A new discovery has serious potential for helping to cure Alzheimer's disease
Verubecestat has serious potential to treat Alzheimer's disease.
Source: TechTimes
A new study published in Science Translational Medicine in November reported the discovery of an enzyme's ability to tackle Alzheimer's disease. The new compound, called verubecestat, is a BACE1 inhibitor - it blocks BACE1, which is an enzyme that normally contributes to the formation of amyloid plaques in the brain, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer's. If you'd like to learn more, I've also covered this news in a previous blog post, available here.

The first vaccine proven to be effective against Ebola is created
The new vaccine is reported to be 70-100% effective.
Source: DailyBeast/Getty Images
A new vaccine, described in a study published in The Lancet in December, has been found to be 70-100% effective against the Ebola virus. Since the 2014 outbreak, Ebola has killed more than 11,000 people. Normally vaccines take around 10 years from production stages to actually becoming available to the public, but Merck (the company that manufactures the vaccine) has promised to produce 300,000 doses of the vaccine to prepare in case of another Ebola outbreak. Whilst the vaccine is still in its experimental stages, there is no doubt that this is a step in the right direction. Find out more here.


It's certainly been a whirlwind year. Some might feel glad this year is over, and that 2017 will be a new start; for those concerned about some of the less pleasing news this year, it's probably comforting to think of 2017 as a fresh slate! But, purely looking at the scientific discoveries that happened this year, research has progressed in leaps and bounds, and truly answered some questions that have been puzzling scientists for years. Personally I think 2016 has been great for scientific discoveries, and I'm excited to find out what 2017 will bring!

What do you think was the biggest science story this year? Are you looking forward to 2017? Let me know in the comments!

***

Finally, just a short note: thank you to anyone who's taken the time to read, comment, like or share anything from my blog. I really do appreciate it!! In May next year I will have been running this blog for 3(!) years, something I never imagined could happen when I started Mind the Brain, and that's partly due to the motivation and encouragement I get from reading your comments! 
Oh, and thank you SO much to anyone who voted for me in the UK Blog Awards 2017! I appreciate it so much!!

Emily x

Monday, 12 December 2016

UK Blog Awards 2017!

Just a short post today to share some exciting news... I've made it to the second stage of the UK Blog Awards 2017! 

The awards are run annually, and are the biggest and UK's longest running programme for recognising influential blogs. Voting is now open to a public vote until next Monday, after which the top voted blogs go through to the final shortlist!

The UK Blog Awards!

I'm so excited to have made it to this stage of the competition, and am so grateful to anyone who's taken the time to read this blog. I never thought when I started writing that this would happen!

If you enjoy reading my blog, I would appreciate it so much if you could vote for me via the link below - all you need to do is fill in your name and email address so that the vote can be validated. I'm in the categories 'digital and technology' and 'health and social care' - if you select the first option on the drop-down box both categories can be voted for at the same time.

http://blogawardsuk.co.uk/ukba2017/entries/mind-brain

Thanks!! Emily x

Friday, 9 December 2016

Superpowers? (3) A blind mind's eye

Some exciting news - I've made it to the second stage of the UK Blog Awards 2017! The awards are run annually, and are the biggest and UK's longest running programme for recognising influential blogs. Voting is now open to a public vote until Monday 19th December, after which the top voted blogs go through to the final shortlist!

I'm so so grateful to anyone who's taken the time to read this blog and I would appreciate it so much if you could vote for me via the link below - all you need to do is fill in your name and email address so that the vote can be validated. I'm in the categories 'digital and technology' and 'health and social care' - if you select the first option on the drop down box, both categories can be voted for at the same time. 


Thanks!!

***

Back to blogging... I've written previously about two conditions that gift a person with rare abilities or afflictions, as part of a a short series I have planned. This series looks at conditions or diseases that may appear fictional or superhuman, but have a drastically different reality. You can read the first blog post in this series here, or the second post here.

This week I'll be looking at aphantasia, the name of a condition in which people do not have 'a mind's eye'. In other words, an inability to create visual imagery inside their mind... Try imagining the face of a friend or family member - if you can do this, you are able to conjure mental images. For those with aphantasia, this is impossible. I've described how our 'mind's eye' works in a previous blog post, which you can read here

It appears to be only last year that the name 'aphantasia' was coined. Whilst studies describing the condition have appeared recently, this does not mean it is a new phenomenon; there's evidence that Francis Galton investigated the condition in the 1880s. As well as this, a study in 2009 estimated that around 2% of people could be affected by the condition, although this number could be drastically different.

Those with aphantasia have a blind mind's eye
Source: BrainDecoder
In the previous blog post linked above, I've described a case of a patient known as MX, who would now be considered as aphantasic, but at the time was determined to have 'blindsight', which is an entirely different condition. It is interesting that the progression in knowledge (just in the past two years since that previous blog post!) has now worked out MX suffers from a completely different condition.

Research into the condition is still scarce however, and more must be done to work out exactly how this inability to create mental images propagates in the brain. It is, understandably, extremely difficult to test for and research the condition as no one can 'see' inside our own minds and experience exactly as we do - similar to the idea that my perception of 'green' may actually be your 'red'.

The study from 2015 (available here) that looked into the condition mostly tested subjects using a visual imagery questionnaire, asking participants to score the vividness of mental images. Unsurprisingly, those with aphantasia struggled with this task. Another exercise the researchers used is to ask a person to count how many windows are in their home.

Source: The Atlantic
The condition has garnered further interest this year after Blake Ross, the co-creator of Mozilla Firefox web browser, published an essay describing his own aphantasia. He only realised that everyone else around him could see mental images after reading the case of MX in an article published in The New York Times, available here. He described his realisation as "blowing my mind" (imagine suddenly realising, at 30 years old, that everyone around you is able to see with their mind's eye, but you cannot), believing previously that 'mind's eye' was just a figure of speech. Interestingly, in Ross's case, the aphantasia extends to other sensory stimuli, such as audio. He is unable to 'hear' a familiar song in his 'mind's ear', which perhaps is more related to 'inner speech', a topic I have covered in another previous blog post (read it here).

You can read Blake Ross's full essay here. If you'd like to learn more about this condition, have a read of the Independent's article here, or the BBC's here.

If you enjoyed this blog post, or my blog is general, don't forget you can vote for me in the UK Blog Awards 2017 at http://blogawardsuk.co.uk/ukba2017/entries/mind-brain Thanks! :)

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Superpowers? (2) Motion blindness

You may remember that a few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about a condition that causes people to not feel any pain. That post was the first in a short series I have planned, looking at conditions or diseases that may appear fictional or superhuman, but have a drastically different reality. You can read the first blog post in this series here.

This week we'll be discussing a new condition, a form of motion blindness known as akinetopsia. This is a medical condition in which a person cannot see an object moving, but are aware that movement occurs. Stationary objects can be viewed without any problems.

The more profound form of the condition is extremely rare, with only a handful of cases reported in on the past century. Most of what is known about the condition comes from a single patient, LM, or also known as Zihl's patient (after the researcher, Zihl, who discussed her condition in various journals in the 1970s and 80s).

People with the condition generally have otherwise normal visual abilities; studies on the few rare cases of people with akinetopsia have shown them to have normal depth perception, normal visual acuity (how 'sharply' they can see an object), and normal colour vision. All of these normal visual abilities apply when the person looks at shapes, objects and faces (each of which are distinct entities that can be tested during research). However, if a person with akinetopsia looks at these objects whilst moving, they cannot perceive it - instead they see objects 'jumping' from one position to another, without smooth movement between the two positions.

Seemingly simple tasks, such as pouring drinks, are difficult for those with akinetopsia
One way to describe the type of vision a person with this condition would have is to imagine a stop-motion video, but played at a slow speed so that the movement of objects would not appear smooth. Patient LM described pouring drinks as difficult "because the fluid appeared to be frozen, like a glacier". LM didn't know when to stop pouring a drink as she could not perceive the level of the fluid rising in a cup. As well as this, a person's own motion could be disturbed - reaching for or trying to catch an object could present problems as it often requires fast movement in a person's visual field. 

However, as with any condition, there are varying levels of the hindrance. Some of those with akinetopsia may not be able to perceive any motion at all, whilst others may only be slightly afflicted. One of the more mild forms, and also the most common, is known as 'inconspicuous akinetopsia', and is described as seeing motion like a multiple exposure photograph.

This image of a building implosion demonstrates how those with inconspicuous akinetopsia may see movement.
Source: Heptagon/Wikimedia Commons
In contrast, the rare form is known as 'gross akinetopsia'. People with this form of the condition struggle with daily tasks, such as LM's inability to pour a drink. It has also been reported as difficult to follow a conversation, due to not being able to see lip movements or changing facial expressions. Other tasks, such as crossing the road or driving, are near impossible.

Research has tried to find a definitive cause for the condition, and so far 3 possible reasons have been suggested. One, which is the most widely accepted, is that akinetopsia may arise from a deficit in certain areas of the brain. Specifically, a lesion in the middle temporal visual area (or, V5), an area concerned with the perception of motion and integration of motion signals into an overall perception of movement. In the case of LM, she was found to have bilateral (on both sides) damage to her V5.

Another way akinetopsia can occur is through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the V5 area, but the effect of this is only temporary. The discovery of the ability to provoke akinetopsia for a short period of time provides researchers with further knowledge about the condition, and confirms further that V5 may be the area responsible for the condition. I have discussed the process of TMS in previous blog posts, and if you'd like to learn more about it, please click here and here.

A third cause of akinetopsia is through the onset of Alzheimer's disease, but this link is considered relatively tentative so far. Further research will no doubt shed more light on the topic.

As can be seen from the causes listed above, there seems to be no reports of congenital akinetopsia (someone being born with the condition). Perhaps this is the reason that the condition can affect the lives of those with gross akinetopsia so severely - if we were born with the condition, this type of viewing the world would be our own normality and we wouldn't know any different.

Currently, there are no specific treatments or cures that will effectively remove akinetopsia. For patients with the more common and milder form of the condition, daily life can be resumed with relatively little extra difficulty; some patients just describe their vision issues 'as a nuisance'. For those with the more severe form, adapting and changing habits can help to deal with akinetopsia. In LM's case, she learned to cope with her condition by training her hearing to detect objects (such as cars) dependent on their distance from her. 

This short documentary style video by Ian Kammer demonstrates how those with akinetopsia may see the world around them:


Whilst this condition sounds fictional, reminiscent of superheros that move so quickly those around them seem frozen in time, it is a reality for some. If you'd like to read about LM's case in more depth, the original study by Zihl in 1983 is available here.

What do you think of this condition? Do you think more should be done to investigate the link between Alzheimer's disease and akinetopsia? Let me know in the comments!

Finally, I want to say thank you so much again to anyone who takes the time to read my blog or follow me on any of Mind the Brain's social media! I really do appreciate any like, follow, tweet or comment I get, and love hearing your opinions on what I've written. I've just recently passed 200 likes on the Facebook page which means so much, thank you! If you'd like more short snippets of neuroscience news from my blog, you can follow us on Instagram here or like our Twitter page here.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Unlocking the brain

A paralysed woman has become the first to communicate just through thinking. The woman, named only as HB as she wishes to stay anonymous, has learned to use a special type of brain implant that allows her to communicate with those around her purely through her own thoughts, despite being completely paralysed.

HB was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS - the disease that was targeted with the 'ice bucket' campaign) in 2008, a disease that causes the death of neurons that control voluntary muscles. The condition also gets progressively worse over time, gradually weakening muscles more and more. In HB's case, she became wheelchair bound and lost her ability to breathe independently. The leader of the research, Nick Ramsey, described her as, "almost completely locked in".

New technology has helped a woman with 'locked-in syndrome' to communicate wirelessly
Source: The Telegraph/Alamy
Currently, there are devices that track eye movements of patients to help those with the same condition as HB. These allow a patient to move their eyes to choose letters on a screen, which then spell out words. However, this is often a long process and not appropriate for all; around a third of ALS patients can lose the ability to move their eyes, according to the New Scientist.

The new device, which doesn't rely on any physical movement from a patient, works by placing electrodes on the surface of the brain. The electrodes then record brain activity, which is sent to a device that is implanted under a patient's skin. Signals then travel wirelessly to an external computer, which translates the signals into other functions (such as the 'click' of a mouse on a screen, or the movement of the mouse to a letter on the screen). In other words, the patient is able to communicate with the screen wirelessly, just by thinking.

HB is the first to trial this new device, and so far it has been successful; after 6 months, she is now able to use the device with 95% accuracy. Similarly to eye tracking devices, this method requires a patient to select specific letters to spell out words or phrases, so it is still a relatively slow process. However, a major benefit of the new device is its portability; it can be used as efficiently outdoors as it can indoors. The currently available eye tracking devices are limited to settings with lighting that allowed the eye tracker to pick up movements - if it was particularly bright outside, the eye tracker would struggle to detect HB's eye moving to select letters.

The research into this new device and HB's condition are explained in the clip below from the New Scientist:


Whilst this new device isn't perfect, it's certainly a step in the right direction. Although only just presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting last week, director of the research Ramsey suggested that honing the software could eventually lead to it being used to control household appliances, which would make a huge difference to ALS patients.

If you'd like to learn more, check out the Scientific American's article here, or the New Scientist's article here.

What do you think of this new research? Is it a step in the right direction? Or should we be doing more? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. Don't forget to follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for lots more original neuroscience content!

Sunday, 6 November 2016

A Cure for Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer's is one of the most well-known neurodegenerative diseases. It is the most common form of Dementia, a type of brain disease that causes forgetfulness and a progressive loss in cognitive function. The proportion of people with Alzheimer's increases with age - the Alzheimer's Society estimate that there are over 850,000 people living with the disease in the UK. 

Like many diseases, Alzheimer's is multifactorial. This means that there is not a singular cause that results in a person suffering from the disease. In the case of Alzheimer's, there is a combination of factors that can contribute to the onset, such as genetics and age. There are also a multitude of hypotheses that attempt to explain why people contract the disease. 

Generally, it is understood that those with Alzheimer's have an abnormal amount of protein (specifically, amyloid plaques), fibres (tau tangles) and chemicals (acetylcholine) in the brain. The combination of these reduces the effectiveness of healthier brain nerves and gradually destroys them (hence why Alzheimer's is called a neurodegenerative disease – it worsens over time). Over progression of the disease, the damage can spread to areas of the brain such as the hippocampus and grey matter. These brain areas are responsible for memory and processing thoughts respectively, so it is understandable why some of the more common effects of Alzheimer's include forgetfulness and confusion. 

A brain slice showing amyloid plaque formations
Source: Jensflorian/Wikimedia Commons
We currently have an ageing population, which means that the issue of caring for those with the disease will only become larger. This means that research into new treatments or care programs are more important than ever. 

A new study published in Science Translational Medicine described some positive results. The team of researchers from Merck Research Laboratories developed a compound that was found to block the activity of an enzyme that is involved in Alzheimer's progression. The new drug compound, called verubecestat, works by blocking the BACE1 enzyme. This enzyme normally produces amyloid beta, a protein that clumps together and forms the amyloid plaques that are characteristic of Alzheimer's disease.

Attempting to block the BACE1 enzyme is not a new occurrence, however. Researchers have been trying to target BACE1's activity for many years, but previous attempts have resulted in study volunteers experiencing severe side effects. 

Blocking the BACE1 enzyme can help to halt the development of amyloid plaques. The amyloid hypothesis of Alzheimer's suggests that the accumulation of these amyloid plaques drives a cascade of various events within the brain that eventually lead to neurodegeneration. So, blocking BACE1 could have a real impact on the progression of Alzheimer's.
The molecular make up of verubecestat
Source: Kennedy et al, 2016, BACE1 inhibitor verubecestat (MK-8931) reduces CNS beta-amyloid in animal models and in Alzheimer's disease patients, Science Translational Medicine, p. 2.
This study is particularly exciting as it demonstrates the potential research now has - a few years ago these results would be impossible, as researchers were not able to successfully block BACE1. However, the study is only at clinical trial phase 1, which means verubecestat has just been trialled on a small group of healthy volunteers. The next step is to test on a small group of patients with Alzheimer's. If this is successful, the drug can be trialled on a large group of Alzheimer's patients, before approval for the wider public.

I also wonder how successful this drug will be considering that there is not yet a singular defined cause for Alzheimer's. If the drug is successful, it backs the amyloid hypothesis of Alzheimer's. However, other causes, such as a genetic disposition, can contribute to the onset. Is there a possibility that this new drug will work with varying levels of success for different cases?

What do you think about these new findings? Do you think a cure for Alzheimer's is a realistic possibility for the near future? Let me know in the comments!

If you would like to read the original study, please click here. For more general information about Alzheimer's from the Alzheimer's Society, please click here


Monday, 31 October 2016

Superpowers? (1) Feeling no pain

Our brains are complex and perform a multitude of different actions and functions simultaneously. It's unlikely that we will ever fully understand exactly how our brains do work, although research into our brain's inner workings is continually ongoing.

One thing we do know is that sometimes our brains don't function correctly. We all have seen or read of the devastating and debilitating effects this can have, but some people are able to live a relatively normal life in spite of their affliction. In this new series of blog posts I will be exploring some of the more unusual disorders, affecting both the brain and body. The conditions covered can grant a patient with abilities that might appear as a positive from the outside, but, as we will discover, can have a much darker reality.

This week will be looking at congenital analgesia, also known as congenital insensitivity to pain. This is when a person cannot feel physical pain. Although the condition sounds fictional, like a superpower in a movie, it is actually extremely dangerous. Not having a sense of pain can lead to accidentally inflicting serious injuries or even an early death. 

Interestingly, people with this condition are able to feel other tactile sensations - for example, they can determine where on their arm someone is touching them, as well as different temperatures - but no pain. Young children and babies with the condition can hurt themselves unintentionally by chewing their tongues or cheeks, which is often used as evidence for the initial diagnosis. As they grow up, more precautions must be taken against being burned by hot objects or accidental scratches and bruises, for example.

Genetics research may help to develop treatments for the condition
Source: The Guardian/Alamy
One example of someone with this condition is Steven Pete. The 33-year-old from the US has broken his bones more than 70 times, but often doesn't realise he has until someone else points it out. He was in and out of hospital often as a child, almost always wearing casts for various injuries. At one point Steven was put into care, as someone reported his parents for child abuse, not realising his condition meant he often unintentionally would injure himself. Now an adult, he describes himself as "not a particularly reckless person", but worries about internal injuries as he has no way of noticing them. However, Steven says that although his brain can't process pain, he believes he can feel his body trying to heal from injuries or illness. He says "it's not pain I deal with, it's extreme discomfort". He visits the hospital regularly for check ups to be safe. Around 1 in every million people are born with the condition.

Recent research has discovered that use of the opioid antagonist drug Naloxone can be used to help patients feel pain again. One study last year allowed a woman with congenital insensitivity to pain to experience pain for the first time. It may sound counter-intuitive to want to feel pain, but for patients with the condition it can really be a life-saver. 

Researchers have also recently discovered a genetic cause of the condition. Scientists found mutations in a gene called PRDM12 in a study of 11 affected families across Europe and Asia. The research found that mutations in both of the copies of the gene that a person inherits (1 copy from the mother, 1 copy from the father) can lead to all pain sensors in the body being turned off at birth. A few other gene mutations have previously been identified in connection with the condition (such as SCN9A mutations), which contribute to pain nerves not functioning correctly.

Research into the SCN9A mutations and Steven's condition are described in the clip below from the Science Museum's Painless exhibition series:


By working out the genetic cause, researchers may be able to better understand the nature of the condition and pain itself. The information gained could also help those who suffer from chronic pain. For those with the condition like Steven, this research must continue.

If you'd like to learn more, please click here (Steven's story in more depth, BBC) and here (The Independent).


Sunday, 23 October 2016

Rubber Hands and Mirror Boxes: Illusions of the brain

For anyone that regularly reads my blog, you will know that I studied Neuroscience for my undergraduate degree university and love learning about the brain! Although I study a different course now for my masters, I still love spotting news stories that pop up about the brain every now and then.

One of the more recent news stories I have read discussed the 'rubber hand illusion', which was used by a team of researchers in Italy to demonstrate how our brains can understand our bodies. This illusion explores the idea of shifting our perception of ourselves, tricking us into thinking that a fake body part is our own. The experiment worked by asking volunteers to sit with both arms on a table, but with their right hand covered by a box. A lifelike rubber hand was placed in front of them and aligned with the right side of their body where the hand would have been.

Source: The Guardian/China Photos/Getty Images
Next, the researchers stroked the middle finger of the hidden right hand at the exact same time as they did to the fake hand. After a couple minutes, the volunteers began to believe that the fake hand belonged to them. This illusion works by sending conflicting visual and sensory (touch) information to the brain, which then sees no other conclusion but that the fake hand is part of the volunteer's body.

This figure demonstrates the science behind the illusion
Source: Figure 1A, della Gatta F. et al.'Decreased motor cortex excitability mirrors own hand disembodiment during the rubber hand illusion', 2016, eLife
Interestingly, when the researchers carried out different techniques to work out exactly what was going on inside the brain during the illusion, they found that electrical impulses to the volunteer's right hands decreased dramatically. This showed that the brain was shutting down impulses to the right hand, as if preparing to stop using it because it not longer believed it to be part of the body. this demonstrates just how strong the illusion is!

The researchers believe their work may be able to help others who suffer from body ownership disorders that may have occurred after stroke or other brain damage. If you'd like to read the study in full, please click here.

***

Reading about this study reminded me of one of the first Neuroscience books I read, called 'Phantom Limbs', by the brilliant Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. The book described different ways our brains can react to limb damage or loss, as well as explaining methods that can be used to help cope with the loss. For example, Ramachandran was working with a patient named Jimmy, who had lost one of his hands. However, Jimmy felt like his missing (phantom) hand was constantly (and painfully) clenched shut.

In an attempt to help relieve Jimmy of this pain, Ramachandran put a mirror between Jimmy's arms and asked him to slowly move his healthy and phantom limbs together. Jimmy looked at the mirror whilst doing this, so effectively was looking at the mirror image of his healthy hand in the place where his phantom would have been. After doing this for a period of time, Jimmy's brain was tricked into thinking that his phantom limb was moving in a normal way. He was soon able to release his painful clenched wrist. This is an example of sensory conflict - Jimmy's visual system would have been telling him that the phantom limb is real and moving, but his brain would be denying existence of the hand. Ramachandran called this 'Mirror Visual Feedback' therapy.

A demonstration of the mirror illusion, convincing the volunteer of two intact healthy arms
Source: BBC News
I have also covered another similar phenomenon in a previous blog post. In this, I discussed the case of Ian Waterman, who lost his sense of his own body and its position relative to space around him. This sense is called proprioception. If you'd like to read my previous blog post on this, please click here!

What do you think of these illusions? Do you think they would work on you?! Let me know in the comments!

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Manchester Science Festival returns!

Manchester Science Festival is the biggest science festival in England, with a huge variety of events, performances and workshops to get involved with. The festival, produced by the Museum of Science of Industry, will return next week with its unique combination of science, art, music, literature, food, and more. This year the festival has chosen to focus on “surprising, meaningful science”, with a goal of inspiring and encouraging future generations of scientists and inventors. I attended the launch party for the festival with Georgie, Science & Tech editor of the Mancunion, the student newspaper we both write for.
At the launch!
Speaking at the launch of the festival, Sally McDonald, Director of MSI, told of the 120,000 visits MSF had last year, making it “by far” the largest science festival in the country. However, she continued to say that, “it isn't just about being the biggest, it’s about being the boldest, and the most creative and the most innovative”. Acting as the flagship event of Manchester’s reign as European City of Science 2016, this year’s MSF has inspired them to “make the city become alive with science not just in the period of October but throughout the year”.
Sally McDonald speaking at the launch
The festival aims to be appealing to all. There are events that cater specifically to different age groups, as well as inclusive events for all ages to enjoy. Adults can enjoy delving into the science behind casinos, learning about sustainable eating or taking a whiskyology class. There is also an event performed by Rachel McCarthy called ‘Elements: Poetry in molecular motion’, which will be exploring the science behind poetry. This event promises to combine visual, smell and audio stimuli alongside some of McCarthy’s acclaimed poetry collection.
If you fancy something active, there are plenty of tours run by the festival, such as the cycling solar system tour around Fallowfield. You can also literally walk a mile in the shoes of inspiring scientists; the ‘John Dalton: Father of Science’ tour walks through places important to the life of Dalton, who is regarded by some as Manchester’s first great scientist.
Georgie getting stuck in with the VR display at the launch!
Now in its 10th year, MSF will also be throwing a ‘birthday party’ to commemorate the festival’s run, because as Antonio Benitez, Director of MSF, correctly pointed out, “if Manchester knows how to do anything, it’s to party”. The event will still appeal to everyone’s inner-geek as you can find out the psychology of hating clowns, the secrets behind magic tricks, and the mathematics in cutting the perfect slice of cake.
Whilst the majority of events are free, some do require pre-booking or a fee, so it is worth checking on the website for additional information and a full timetable of activities.
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This post was originally written for the Mancunion, a student newspaper based in Manchester that I am a reporter for. If you would like to read more articles from the paper, click here!