Ask a neuroscientist

Can your brain rewire itself? How is the brain built and what can go wrong? And should the secondary school day start later to compensate for teenage sleep patterns?

Neuroscientists from the University of Oxford address all these questions in our new exhibition – Brain Diaries – Modern Neuroscience in Action. Created in partnership with Oxford Neuroscience, the exhibition and event programme kicked off last week to coincide with international Brain Awareness Week, which runs from 13-19 March.

Here we present a selection of videos from the exhibition. The full set is available on our YouTube channel now. And if you’re not able to visit the exhibition itself, we’ve built a special Brain Diaries website which contains all that neuroscience goodness.

Is brain-building a tricky business?
Professor Zoltán Molnár of the University of Oxford specialises in the development of the brain. In this video he talks about the complex processes at play during the brain’s early development, including how things can sometimes go wrong.

Can my brain rewire itself?
Associate Professor Holly Bridge works in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Her research focuses on using MRI scans of the human brain to understand the organisation of the visual system in people with normal vision and in those with abnormal visual function. Here she talks about how the brain can rewire itself to compensate for damage to certain sensory areas.

School’s out – should the school day start later?
Dr Christopher-James Harvey works at the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford. As part of the Teensleep research project, he is investigating how changes in the natural rhythm of sleep in adolescents, and the effects of sleep education, might impact on academic, health and sleep outcomes. Here he talks about initiatives to trial a later starting time for the secondary school day.

To read more about Brain Diaries and see the full programme of public events see

Brain washing


Our next exhibition – Brain Diaries: Modern Neuroscience in Action – opens on 10 March and in preparation we have indulged in a little bit of brain-washing… This article contains an image of a preserved human brain.

One of the first displays visitors will encounter is a ‘wall’ of 23 fluid-preserved mammal brains – from a Short-nosed Bandicoot to cow. The style of jar, with its black bitumen and paint backing, tells us that these were once used for display so it is exciting to put them in the public galleries again. Museum conservator, Jacqueline Chapman-Gray, runs us through the meticulous process she undertook to ensure these brains will look their best for their return to the limelight.

Cow brain before conservation treatment
A number of the brains had become dehydrated over time as the level of fluid – alcohol – had dropped. These needed to go through a rehydration programme to ensure their long-term preservation. This is more complex than simply adding more fluid to the jar. Instead the alcohol level needs to be increased gradually to avoid damaging the tissues.

Brains soaking in alcohol
Others had started to detach from their glass mounts, or anatomy labels that marked each of the different areas or sections of the brain had come loose. These were carefully remounted using specialist conservation-grade materials and a steady hand! Three brains had become completely detached and were repaired using a polyester monofilament thread, otherwise known as fishing line.

Repairing a human brain with a beading needle

Labels found detached at the bottom of the jar
For the smallest of the brains a normal sewing needle was enough to pass through the tissues but for the larger two either a flexible 10cm beading needle or large 25cm mattress needle was needed. The original threading points were reused wherever possible though in one case this proved to be too difficult, as the tissue was soft and susceptible to breaking. With precision and patience I was able to gently stitch them back into place on the backing plate so they look as good as new.

All of the jars were given a thorough clean to ensure that seals were tight fitting and that the contents were shown off to their best. They were then filled with fluid to 4/5ths from the rim and the brains gently placed back inside.

Lids were sealed with clear silicone and each jar was topped up with a syringe through a small hole in the lid that is there for this very purpose – once full, this hole is also sealed.

Lastly, after the seals had dried, for the final finishing flourish black paint was reapplied to the backs and tops of the jars to provide a contrasting backdrop.

Ta-dah… the cow brain after conservation treatment
Brain Diaries opens on Friday 10 March and runs until Monday 1 January 2018. Take a look at the website to find out more about the exhibition and accompanying programme of events at