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Visit to University of Cambridge’s Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit

Posted by: John Cooter - 01 February 2019 - Field Trips - Read time: 3 Minutes

With all the free lectures and demonstrations given by world-class researchers throughout the year and especially at two annual events, the Cambridge Science Festival and the Festival of Ideas, our students have much to choose from already. Yet, we sometimes add to this with days organised particularly for our students at one of the university’s departments.

Thus, we have once again ventured out into the world of cutting edge research. This time it was our Psychology students, benefiting from having the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit practically on our doorstep.

We are very grateful to the MRC, who proved once again only too happy to arrange a visit for our students when we contacted them. The premises in Chaucer Road are actually only about a 7 minute walk from our main site on Brookside.

On arrival, we were welcomed by Vicky Collins, who had very kindly coordinated this visit for us. Vicky took us straight to an impressive lecture theatre where Bob Carlyon, the Deputy Director, gave a brief introduction to the unit. Founded 75 years ago as the Applied Psychology Unit, it has taken a leading role in researching human cognition and its disorders, first through behavioural experiments but more recently also with the use of neuroimaging. These technologies enable researchers to identify the underlying brain mechanisms and structures behind cognitive processes such as perception, attention, memory and reasoning. The staff of the unit try to use their discoveries to help human wellbeing for all age groups and to develop treatments for disorders.

We were then given presentations from three researchers about their current projects at the unit. First, Dr David Johnson told us about the HARMONIC trial, a new transdiagnostic treatment for mood and anxiety disorders. Dr Camilla Nord next asked ‘Where is the brain in depression?’ and explained her research on the different brain areas associated with the different cognitive and emotional aspects of depression. The two talks dovetailed together and made very real the topics we have studied for A level under biopsychology and psychopathology. Besides treatments students had already learnt about, such as medication and CBT, we also gained a little glimpse into transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial electrical stimulation, which are able to target specific brain areas much more precisely than older interventions like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). However, despite the bad image ECT has gained over the years, we learned that it is still one of the most reliably effective treatments for severe depression.

Lastly, Dr Sophie Borgeest talked to us about the relationship of lifestyle and ageing. Her research used a data-driven approach to analyse large sets of questionnaire responses from older people to identify clusters of behavioural factors. This interested students from the point of view of research methodology, a key part of the A level course, and they were able to see how sophisticated computer-based statistical analysis can be used to make sense of large volumes of data that would take individual psychologists aeons to go through. So far, the somewhat surprising finding of her research was that physical exercise is not as important for successful ageing as social and intellectual activities.

The speakers each challenged us with their research and were keen to get our input; we certainly challenged them with some of the questions we threw back as well. This was such a marvellous opportunity for A level students to engage in academic debate with scientists about live research topics and I was very pleased to see how much MPW students were completely engaged with this.

Cambridge's Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit - MRI ScannerWhen the supply of questions started to run out, Vicky led us through the building to the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner, housed in the garden in a purpose-built lab. The radiographer, Dr Marius Mada, then showed us round the mock scanner. Although MRI scanning is completely harmless, sometimes patients or participants can find it scary, particularly children and older people. For one, going into the scanner can be claustrophobic. Also, it makes a lot of noise as the electro magnets fire up – somewhat like the Tardis about to travel through time and space. The mock scanner is a decommissioned scanner that is used in training and for patients to get acclimatised before being tested on the real thing. Marius asked for a volunteer and Adam stepped forward and lay down on the scanner bed. Marius then started a motor and Adam slowly disappeared headfirst into the scanner clutching only a teddy for comfort (provided by the scanner staff for anxious child patients). This was accompanied by a loud simulation of the intimidating sound it would normally make.

We had learnt about MRI as a method of studying the brain under biopsychology, so it was exciting to see a real (or at least mock) scanner in use, as well as to hear Marius’s explanation of the insights that can be gained this way. Patients in the scanner can be presented with tasks which test memory or perception on a screen above their head, while a 3D image of their brain is built by successive scans, highlighting areas of activity. Pinned on the wall were some glossy scans of the brains of study participants, together with some beautiful scans of plants which staff had produced just for their own interest and amusement.

Cambridge's Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit - Head ScanNext we were off to another part of the unit, past long corridors of offices inhabited by neuroscientists, to see another type of brain scanner, the magnetoencephalography scanner (MEG), which has been used to research epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. Students were familiar from their A level course with electroencephalography (EEG), which involves a participant wearing a rubber cap covered with electronic sensors which pick up very small electrical waves across the surface of the brain. As with the scanner, the person can be given tasks to do while brain activity is recorded. The MEG is a more recent development of this technology which involves the participant sitting under a large hood which takes a succession of traces to build an image. Lordie volunteered this time and was first asked to remove all items of metal from his pockets, belt, watch etc. The scanner itself is situated inside a magnetically screened chamber, like a giant fridge (but not so cold) and after waving goodbye to us Lordie was sealed into it. He was in communication with the outside through microphone and speaker and we could all see him on a video link. Drs Olaf Hauk and Clare Cook, the two researchers who work with the MEG, then presented Lordie with two cognitive tasks on a computer screen, one visual and one auditory. As his brain was scanned, another computer built up an image of the sectors that were firing the most. Students could immediately relate these to the visual cortex at the back of the brain and the auditory cortex at the side, as they had studied on their A level course.

Cambridge's Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit - Head CapFifty years ago, psychologists were able to test cognitive processes like memory, attention and perception, while medical researchers and neurologists were able to study functions of different brain areas through surgery and post-mortems. The use of MRI and similar techniques have brought together biology and psychology under the banner of neuroscience so that we are now able to map mental functions to brain structures. This means we can research what parts of the brain do, how they work together and crucially, what happens when some parts cease working properly through injury or disease.

We felt very privileged that the MRC staff had put some of their valuable time aside to tell and show us a little about their work. I especially like the way they didn’t just lecture our students, they asked them questions to see what they already knew or remembered about brain science. Of the nine students in the group, three are going on to read Psychology at university and I hope this insight into the cutting edge of modern research in neuroscience at one of the leading facilities in the world will have inspired and enthused them to learn more. After all, in a few years they could be back working there themselves!

And, of course, a huge thank you from our group to the MRC team!