Avoiding Jedward Status?

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I’ve been picked to take part in an online competition called “I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here”. One hundred scientists compete to interest and impress school students and hopefully in the process demonstrate that they’re normal people. We’re divided into groups of five, and in each group £500 is at stake – the students will be voting to evict us, one by one, as in Big Brother, the X factor, and Over The Rainbow. Everyone is keen to stay in and avoid Jedward status. I am in the “Imaging Zone” with Stephen Curry, Pete Edwards, Marieke Navin, and Steve Roser.

This is a slightly unusual grouping of scientists. We all use hi-tech methods to observe otherwise difficult to see phenomena, but we apply these techniques to very different questions.

Mine are to do with the way the brain forms memories, and how we use memory and vision to locate ourselves in the world and find our way about. These questions could be important because the ability to form new memories of every day events and to navigate accurately from place to place both depend on the hippocampus – a part of the brain which is damaged in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. By understanding how the hippocampus works, our research may contribute to the development of new approaches to the diagnosis and treatment of this illness which affects over 700,000 people in the UK at any time. It will also give us an insight into the mechanisms of memory, which plays such an important part in our daily lives and in our sense of self. 

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One of the techniques I use is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – this allows us to see which parts of the brain are active when people undertake different tasks. By comparing activity seen during different, carefully designed tasks we can figure out how each part of the brain contributes to each task. For example, I used a modified video game (Quake 2) to compare brain activity seen when people were finding their way around a virtual town with activity when they followed a fixed, familiar route – although on the surface these tasks are very similar, they seem to rely on different brain systems.

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New techniques like fMRI allow us to investigate the workings of the human brain in a way that was impossible 20 years ago. We are at the beginning of an exciting journey of discovery. We already know that different parts of the brain do different things. We know in some detail what some of those things are, and we know something about the way that brain cells connect together and allow us to sense the world, learn, remember, think and act. The way the different functions are laid out doesn’t seem to be random – nearby parts do similar things. Perhaps there are some simple rules or principles that explain the layout. I’ve always been interested in how the brain is organized, and in the future I hope to do more work looking at how these patterns can be described and explained, and how they emerge.

The brain is sometimes described as the most complex object in the known universe, and it certainly seems very complex indeed now. But perhaps when we understand it better, it will seem simpler.

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