The winning brainwave

If you could create an experiment to learn more about the human brain, what would you investigate? We posed this question in our Big Brain Competition last year, as part of the Brain Diaries exhibition with Oxford Neuroscience, and received a whopping 800 entries!

For the competition, Oxford University neuroscientists offered people the chance to use the state-of-the-art MRI scanner at Wellcome Centre For Integrative Neuroimaging at the John Radcliffe Hospital to investigate a burning question about the brain. We had ideas from the young and old, and by visitors from all around the world suggesting brilliant questions and some fascinating experiments.

Functional MRI image of the human brain using the MRI Scanner

To judge all the ideas, entries were split into categories: feasible experiments, unfeasible experiments, under 18s, and questions about the brain. WIN researchers compiled a long-list for each, which was ranked by a panel of neuroscientists and people from the museum to reach the eventual winners.

Sadly, only one experiment could be carried out, so an overall winner was picked from the ‘feasible experiments’ category. The winning experiment was suggested by Richard Harrow, who wanted to understand how the brain identifies voices.

A person is put in the MRI scanner with headphones on.  They are shown a photo of a person familiar to them, either a friend, family member or celebrity.  Then, in their headphones they are played the voice of a person, but the voice is either sped up or slowed down.
They are required to say whether the face on the photo matches the voice they have heard. What happens in the brain when this confusion of audio and visual information is occurring? Will the brain find a way to identify the vocal signature of the voice, even if distorted, and be able to say with conviction if the photo and the voice are a match?
– Richard Harrow, winning competition idea

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Competition winner Richard Harrow was interviewed alongside neuroscientist Dr Stuart Clare during the live streaming of the experiment

On the day of the experiment, the winners and runners-up headed over to the WIN Centre to watch Richard’s winning experiment being conducted. The experiment was streamed live by Oxford Sparks and we had a clear result from the test, as neuroscientist Dr Holly Bridge explains:

The scans show that when you’re getting information that corresponds in both your auditory and your visual system you get a boost in your brain activity. We can detect that the brain does respond differently depending on whether or not you can match the face with the voice; it clearly has a lot to do with expectation.

Stuart and Holly
The brains behind the Big Brain Competition, Dr Holly Bridge and Dr Stuart Clare explained the results of the experiment on a Facebook Live stream

The scientists also wanted to answer as many of the other great brain questions as possible. So a series of articles picks out some of the broad themes in the competition ideas, including lifestyle, muscle memory and stress. Researchers also answered more big questions live on Facebook during this year’s Brain Awareness Week.

We sorted the many entries in the Big Brain Competition into themes such as vision, lifestyle, and language

Thank you to everyone who suggested an experiment or asked a question; it made for a fascinating conclusion to the Brain Diaries exhibition, and has definitely increased the amount of brain activity from staff across the Museum and Oxford Neuroscience… if only there was an MRI scanner for us to see it!

Winners of the Big Brain Competition at the Museum of Natural History with the neuroscientists. Left to right: James, Holly, Stuart, Misha, Richard, Lily, and Heidi

You can still get involved with the Big Brain Competition by trying the winning experiment at home.


The crucial cortex

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University of Oxford PhD student Lance Millar recently ran one of our Brain Spotlight events as part of the Brain Diaries exhibition programme. Here, Lance explains his research into neurodevelopmental disorders and possible treatments.

The brain has always been a fascinating organ for me. It is the site of our intelligence, our problem-solving and social skills, and it allows us to connect our senses to the world around us.

The large, folded outer part of the human brain is called the cortex, and is responsible for decision-making, language, face recognition, and a lot of the other things that I like to think are what make us human. The word cortex comes from the Greek for husk or outer shell, which underestimates the importance of what the cortex does.

Humans can survive with damage to the cortex, but depending on the part of the cortex that is damaged, a range of disabilities can result. People who have had a stroke can lose part of their cortex, leading to limb paralysis, loss of speech, or loss of memory, depending on the site of the damage.

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Cerebral cortex – Professor Michael R Peres – Wellcome Images

Some people are also born with a developmental problem in the cortex, and are said to have a neurodevelopmental disorder. Such conditions are thought to include autism, schizophrenia, ADHD, and even dyslexia – all fairly common conditions. The damage to the cortex is subtle and complex in these conditions, and scientists are still working out exactly what happens to the brain during its prenatal development.

I am studying one particular neurodevelopmental disorder caused by lack of oxygen at birth. It is known to medical specialists as neonatal hypoxia ischaemia. The image on the right shows a cross-section MRI scan of a normal newborn human brain, alongside some babies who have been damaged by oxygen deprivation. You can see that the brains are smaller, the cortex is less folded and it takes up less space inside the skull.

MRI scans of normal newborn brains alongside those of babies who have been damaged by oxygen deprivation. Image: Woodward et al., New England Journal of Medicine, 2006

Scientists still don’t know how to protect the newborn brain from these injuries. Some are caused by inflammation which is a normal response to illness, but can wreak havoc in the confined space of the skull. Some is caused by the presence of free radicals, which are thought to contribute to ageing and organ failure, as the newborn brain doesn’t have many antioxidants to fight these chemicals. It’s also possible that the electrical signals that neurons within the brain send to each other contribute to the damage when there isn’t enough oxygen to feed them.

So what can we do to treat oxygen deprivation at birth? One breakthrough treatment currently available is known known as hypothermia. In this technique, the baby is cooled to 33℃ which slows down the brain-damaging chemical reactions which in turn protects the brain. This is currently the only treatment available, but I am involved in the study of possible alternatives.

We don’t want to introduce any drugs to the baby’s system as they might be harmful to normal development. So scientists are currently working on treatments which help the baby’s natural body proteins to protect the brain. I do this by looking at neurons under the microscope, and identifying proteins expressed by these neurons using fluorescent probes known as antibodies.

Neurons under the microscope
An example of neurons under the microscope. Image: Lancelot Millar

These neurons are expressing neuroserpin, a natural brain protein which decreases inflammation and cell death. I’m looking at exactly where neuroserpin is expressed in the brain, how it can be upregulated in response to oxygen deprivation, and how its chemical reactions could be used to protect the brain.

Another way to help people with neurodevelopmental disorders is to better understand how the cortex connects to other parts of the brain and how it can carry out complicated decisions. There is still so much to understand about the complexity of the human brain, and what seems like fundamental research could generate the springboard for new ideas for neurodevelopmental disorder treatments.

To explore the structure of the human brain and compare it to that of other animals see the Brain Diaries Brain Explorer below.


All about Alzheimer’s

University of Toronto research fellow Jacqueline Zimmermann recently ran one of our Brain Spotlight events as part of the Brain Diaries exhibition programme. To mark World Alzheimer’s Day today, here Jacqueline tells us about the neurophysiology of Alzheimer’s disease and the risk factors we can actively reduce to lead happier, healthier, and longer lives.

Almost all of us have in some way been affected by Alzheimer’s disease, which makes the quest for a cure that much more personal. An estimated one in nine people over the age of 65 will develop the disease, and this risk also increases with age, according to the World Alzheimer’s Report in 2015.

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Jacqueline Zimmerman’s Brain Spotlight on Saturday 16 September as part of the Brain Diaries exhibition series of events.

Due to chemical toxins, and increased longevity, the incidence for Alzheimer’s disease is on the rise. But the good news is that there is a lot that you can do to reduce your risk. At the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, hundreds of scientists are currently working towards identifying the cause and the solution to the disease.

At the Brain Spotlight event at the Museum I presented images of ageing brains, and explained how brains affected by Alzheimer’s have reduced volume in the temporal lobe and the hippocampus, regions critical for language and memory respectively. Diseased brains will also often show reduced frontal lobe volume, which may reflect the changes in personality and the ability to engage in planning which area associated with Alzheimer’s. The overall volume of the brain is also reduced in sufferers because cellular changes lead to the death of neurons.

Brain Atrophy in Alzheimer’s disease
Brain Atrophy in Alzheimer’s disease. Note: overall brain volume is reduced, hippocampal regions and frontal regions are particularly affected, and ventricles are enlarged. Image:

Recently, a number of genes have been identified that are related to early onset Alzheimer’s, which is quite rare and much more hereditary than late-onset Alzheimer’s. At the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, where I am a visiting researcher, we are investigating a late-onset Alzheimer’s risk gene called Apolipoprotein 4 (APOE4), looking at how it relates to subtle cognitive impairments in middle-aged people. Working with the Oxford Biobank we are trying to determine which cognitive assessments may be most effective in predicting these impairments.

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Functional brain imaging using electroencephalography at Rotman Research Institute in Toronto. Image: Rotman Research Institute

Although some of us may be more susceptible to Alzheimer’s than others, there are a number of environmental factors that contribute, including air pollution or additives in our food, like nitrogen-based chemicals which are used to preserve and flavour processed foods. It is important to reduce cholesterol in the diet, eat plenty of fruits and leafy greens, and engage in frequent physical and mental exercise.

Though there is speculation about the effectiveness of ‘brain games’ and how they translate into improvements in cognition in the real world, there are certainly large benefits of keeping your brain active.


The Big Brain Competition

What happens in your brain when you receive compliments? And what’s going on in your mind when you watch your football team win a match? Does the brain respond differently when recalling music, compared to listening to it? All these questions, and more, have been posed in our Big Brain Competition

Coinciding with the Museum’s Brain Diaries exhibition, the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging is inviting you to ask your own question about the brain to be in with a chance to have it tested by neuroscientists using Oxford’s state-of-the art Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner.

The advanced MRI scanner at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford is one of the strongest in the world. It allows scientists to carry out functional MRI (fMRI) scans to see the brain in action. This mind-blowing procedure can reveal how the brain changes when learning a new skill or how it compensates when someone recovers from brain damage. It can also reveal which areas are used when people speak, move or laugh, to give just a few examples.

This fMRI scan shows how blood flows to the visual cortex region at the back of the brain when viewing a visually-stimulating checkerboard pattern
Dr Stuart Clare of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences is asking you for questions about the brain

Functional MRI shows when a brain area is more active by detecting the changes in blood oxygen levels and blood flow that happen in response to neural activity. The technique can be used to produce activation maps showing which parts of the brain are involved in a particular mental process.

The scientist behind the Big Brain Competition is Dr Stuart Clare, whose research involves pushing the technological boundaries of the fMRI technique to reveal new insights about how the brain functions normally and how it is affected by disease. There is still so much that the fMRI scans can bring to light, so Stuart is asking you for ideas!

Over several years of inviting people in to see the beautiful pictures that our MRI scanner can produce, I’ve been fascinated by the questions they have about the brain and whether you can see this thing or that thing in our fMRI scans.  With this competition we want to give people the unique access to our scanner and the chance to try an idea out for themselves.

When coming up with an idea for investigation there are a few practical things to bear in mind. Any activity has to be something people can do when lying down in the scanner and it has to be clear when they start and stop doing the activity. But Stuart is very open to ideas for experiments that they haven’t come across before – something that scientists really don’t already know the answer to.

The animation below explains how fMRI works and what it can do. So take a look, think up an experiment of your own and enter your idea via this form. The best one will be put into action by the research team and you will be able to watch the scans take place at the John Radcliffe Hospital yourself!

Credit: Mike Peckett

Great minds don’t think alike

Credit: Mike Peckett

Museums are a place for many things: inspiration, learning, conservation… the list goes on. But we believe that they should also be a forum for debate and discussion. One of our aims, as part of our Contemporary Science and Society exhibition and event series, is to bring controversial or challenging ideas to our visitors and to encourage a lively, informed and balanced debate.

Thomas Henry Huxley

Controversy is nothing new to this institution; there is a history of debate going right back to 30 June 1860, the year the Museum was founded. The Great Debate is believed to have been the first ever public debate on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – certainly the thorny issue of the time.

The debate is now notorious for the clash of ideologies between Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Henry Huxley, a young biologist known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’.

Samuel Wilberforce

Reports from the time are a little sketchy, but tempers are believed to have flared and insults were traded, climaxing with the shocking moment where Wilberforce compared Huxley’s grandparents to an ape. This was obviously outrageous to the delicate Victorian temperament, and people were believed to have fainted with shock!

This short video reveals how we think the debate may have gone (with a little artistic license thrown in):

The anniversary of the Great Debate falls next week, and this year it’s an extra special one. We’re reigniting the tradition of a good lively discussion with The Great Debate: Smart Drugs – Is It Cheating? On Thursday 29 June, Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas and BBC Radio 4 chairs a multidisciplinary panel as in a debate about the ethics, fairness, and effects of so-called smart drugs and their impact on society.

Smart drugs is a name given to prescription drugs, typically used to treat disorders such as narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which are now also commonly being used to improve cognitive ability and concentration. Some studies suggest that these drugs are now widely being used by university students, in a climate of increased academic and financial pressure.

Many students are said to see these drugs as a normal aid to study, but some experts have serious concerns about increasing levels of self-prescription and the long-term safety of their use, as well as the impact on competitiveness. Increased use in other areas of society may also have implications.

The panel for this debate includes world experts in the fields of neuroethics, evolutionary psychology, and philosophy, each representing different sides of this challenging subject.

Tickets are free, but you need to book your place. We can promise controversial opinions, expert insights and an eye-opening evening, but unlike Wilberforce and Huxley, we can’t necessarily guarantee that the panelists will be flinging insults about each other’s grandparents.