Insights into the brain – Cambridge Science Festival

Researchers at the Cambridge Science Festival reveal latest insights into the brain

Leading scientists at the forefront of neuroscience discuss the latest research into hallucinations, dementia, autism, OCD and eating disorders as part of a series of events examining the brain at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival.

The Festival runs from 9th – 22nd March and presents a programme loaded with over 390 events, most of which are free. Other areas covered include the development of self, perceptions of reality, the adolescent brain, and the effects of music on the brain.

Our brains have no direct contact with external reality. They sit within the thick vault of the skull and rely on messages from the sense organs, conveying information about the state of the world around them and the bodies to which they are connected. These messages are not easy to decipher, they are noisy, ambiguous and often coded. In Illusions and hallucinations: our tenuous grip on reality (11 March), Professor Paul Fletcher, Department of Psychiatry, discusses how we construct our picture of reality using a combination of sensory data and stored knowledge. Usually, this strategy serves us well, but it does not take much for the system to become perturbed. Professor Fletcher discusses this challenge and how we are very adept at creating a model of reality based on achieving a balance between what our senses are telling us and our expectations of what should be the case.

Relying on this balance comes at a cost, rendering us vulnerable to illusions and biases and, in more extreme cases, a reality that diverges from that experienced by others,” he said. “This can arise for a variety of reasons and may cause immense fear and suffering.

Professor Fletcher considers what it might be like to have this altered experience and shows evidence – both descriptive and experimental – of how and why it might arise. Though it is often the case that such experiences seem inexplicable and incomprehensible, he suggests that what we know about the brain actually implies that we are all separated, to some extent, from objective reality by the fact that we cannot rely only on our sensations but must use our expectations to decode the sensory messages from the world.

Another area of research to be discussed during the Festival is dementia, which is caused by illnesses that affect our brain from working normally. Such illnesses are Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body disease and other conditions affecting different parts of the brain. Dementia can affect people’s memory or thinking, and when it gets worse, it can reduce our ability to do everyday activities such as eating and drinking. Although dementia is very common, currently there is no cure.

In Our vision and updates on research progress for dementia (12 March), two renowned British experts in the field provide an update on dementia research. Professor Ian McKeith, Newcastle University, discusses some of the difficulties of making a diagnosis of Lewy body dementia, the second most common type of dementia, and highlights progress made during a recent Newcastle and Cambridge collaborative study called the ‘DIAMOND-Lewy Programme’.  He reveals new insights into identifying Lewy body dementia at the very earliest stages – which is when treatment might be most advantageous. The lead on the joint study, Professor John O’Brien, University of Cambridge, also covers detection of dementia and specifically treating or preventing it at an early stage. He explains how the programme has developed both an assessment toolkit to help clinicians make the diagnosis and, using best available evidence and expert opinion, a management toolkit to ensure a more systematic and comprehensive approach to patient care.

The talks are followed by informal and interactive discussions led by researchers from the Universities of Cambridge, East Anglia and Essex.

Autism is seen through many lenses: as a difference and disability, and as a disorder and even a disease. Autistic people often struggle with social relationships and communication, and experience stress in response to unexpected change and sensory overload. Many also have remarkable attention to and memory for detail, particularly patterns and facts. Sadly, many autistic people have poor mental health, which likely reflects insufficient support, victimisation, social exclusion, and unemployment. The autism spectrum is very broad, and some autistic people have additional learning or language disabilities, while others have epilepsy or gastrointestinal pain.

In the discussion, Genetics research in autism: ethical perspectives (13 March), Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University and co-lead on Spectrum 10K – a new Wellcome Trust study with the Sanger Institute, the Department of Paediatrics, and UCLA – is in conversation with Dr Varun Warrier, the geneticist coordinating Spectrum 10K; Dr Virginia Bovell, whose own research focuses on the ethics of autism, and who is also a mother of a young autistic man; and David Thorburn, a local parent who was recently diagnosed as autistic. Together, and with other members of the scientific and autism community, they discuss the ethical issues, fears, and opportunities surrounding the Spectrum 10K study – which will collect DNA and life-history information from 10,000 autistic people in the UK to identify genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the varied outcomes they have, with a view to ultimately improving their wellbeing.

How can a lump of fatty tissue – our brain – create our sense of self and identity? In My self and my brain (18 March), Dr Jane Aspell, Anglia Ruskin University, discusses neurological and psychiatric conditions in which the experience of self and body is radically altered – including depersonalisation disorder, phantom limb pain, xenomelia and autism. Dr Aspell shows how the scientific study of these rare and distressing disorders can help us better understand how the brain generates a self. She explains how all of these disorders involve a faulty connection between the body and the brain, so that, for example body parts are experienced as ‘not belonging’ and ‘hateful’ (xenomelia) or body parts that are missing are still experienced as present, even painful (phantom limbs). During her talk, Dr Aspell also covers new research into depersonalisation disorder – the self feels detached from the world and the body so that one’s body can be experienced as ‘not mine’ and ‘not inhabited by me’ – and the sense of self in autism.

On 14th March, The Department of Psychology opens its doors for a packed day of talks, debates and hands-on events, from visual and impulse control experiments to how psychology and social psychology could help us develop better democratic processes that might reduce political polarisation. Talks include Insight and psychiatric disorders: do we need to accurately feel our bodies to understand our urges? Dr David Belin discusses the latest research on the role of interoception and its contribution to impulsivity and compulsive disorders, such as drug addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorder. And in The science of consciousness, Dr Daniel Bor presents mini-experiments and cutting-edge neuroimaging techniques to showcase our most important and intimate feature: consciousness.

Further related events include:

  • Predictive brains, modelling minds, optimising mental functioning (10 March). According to contemporary neuroscience our brain is constantly building a model of the body and the world it inhabits. How does it do this? How does this help us think about our mental functioning and other minds around us? Dr Hisham Ziauddeen, Department of Psychiatry, explores how things go awry in mental illness.
  • Peter Pan and the brain: perspectives from neuropsychology and the history of medicine (10 March). What does Peter Pan have to do with cognitive psychology? What can Victorian theories of the brain tell us about Captain Hook? Dr Rosalind Ridley and Dr Sarah Green consider how neuropsychology and the history of medicine can work together to bring new light to the familiar tale.
  • CBU vision night: looking at the brain (11 March). An evening at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit (MRC CBU) exploring research in psychology and neuroscience through practical hands-on activities and experiments followed by short talks.
  • Musical visions (13 March). How does music provoke such evocative reactions? What is happening to our brains when we listen to music? The Cambridge Graduate Orchestra present an exploration into musical visions and human psychology, starting with a pre-concert talk on science and music. After which, they perform Mendelsohn’s colourful evocation of the Hebrides, his Violin Concerto with soloist Miriam Davis, and Dvorak’s picturesque and pastoral 8th Symphony.
  • The adolescent brain (16 March). Adolescence is often characterised by behaviours that seem irrational, such as excessive risk-taking and impulsivity. Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Department of Psychology, suggests these behaviours can be interpreted as adaptive and rational given that a key developmental goal is to mature into an independent adult, while navigating a social world that is unstable and changing.
  • Skinny genes (19 March). There is increasing evidence that an intricate biological system underpins our choices about when, what and how much we eat. Prof Sadaf Farooqi from the Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science discusses key research into the biology of appetite emerging from genetics and neuroscience and the relevance of these findings to understanding eating disorders and obesity.
  • Neuromeditation with music (21 March). Krisztián Hofstädter, ARU, demonstrates his Brain–Computer Music Interface. This composes soundscapes that employ real-time brainwave measurements. The soundscapes are immersive and interactive audio neurogames that help us learn more about control awareness and consciousness.
  • Music therapy, social neuroscience and clinical applications (21 March). A series of talks and live demonstrations at the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research (ARU), which specialises in research activities into the use of music in dementia treatment, neurorehabilitation and mental health. This one-day event includes a demonstration of brains in action during an interactive music-based stroke intervention, talks on how social neuroscience helps researchers to understand how music therapy works, and a live therapy session involving imagery and music listening.

To view the full programme and book tickets, please visit Cambridge Science Festival

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This year’s Festival sponsors and partners are Cambridge University Press, AstraZeneca, Illumina, TTP Group, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge Epigenetix, Cambridge Science Centre, Cambridge Junction, IET, Hills Road 6th Form College, British Science Week, Cambridge University Health Partners, Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology, and Walters Kundert Charitable Trust. Media Partners: BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.