• Pregnancy Brain

    Over the past few years I’ve been working with ITV Global. It all started a couple of years back when I was invited to give my Sort Your Brain Out and Neuroscience of Negotiation talks for various members of their senior leadership team, both domestically and worldwide. This year and last the focus shifted to my Science of Creativity talk which I gave for their 100+ leaders across the full breadth of the organisation over the course of six live events. After one of these speaking engagements I was approached by an audience member who’d had a question on her mind since falling pregnant shortly after one of the talks I’d given previously (nothing to do with me!). She had noticed that her usually exceptional memory had gradually eroded as the pregnancy progressed. The burning question was: is the phenomenon of ‘pregnancy brain’ fact or fiction and, more to the point, was there any hope of her getting her previously brilliant memory back again? Had she asked me this question a year earlier I would have had to admit that science hadn’t yet addressed the question properly. As it happens her timing was excellent – a brain imaging study had just been published that might just provide the answer she was hoping for. I promised I’d write a blog about it, so here it is…

    The groundbreaking study by lead author Elseline Hoekzema and colleagues at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Leiden University was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. They used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to measure the key changes that take place in the female brain as a result of pregnancy. They found that the grey matter consistently shrinks in brain areas commonly associated with social cognition and the greater the degree of volume reduction in these areas, the deeper the mother-child bond. The brain areas in question included in the Superior Temporal Sulcus (STS) and Inferior Frontal Gyrus (IFG) on the outward-facing surface of the left and right hemisphere, and the Precuneus and medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC) of the inward-facing surface where left and right hemispheres meet in the middle. Far from reflecting a withering away of brain areas under assault from the tsunami of hormones that regulate gestation (mothers are exposed to progesterone levels over ten times greater than the highest levels of the normal menstrual cycle and more oestrogen during pregnancy than the rest of their lives put together) the changes actually reflect adaptations specialising the brain for maternal attachment.

    Volume reductions were also observed in the hippocampus which could explain the degradation of memory that many women experience during and just after pregnancy. While memory wasn’t rigorously tested (they did a couple of tests but only found a trend towards memory loss) in this particular study, new mothers may take comfort from the observation that while the brain areas involved in social cognition remained two years after completion of the pregnancy, the volume of the left hippocampus had partially recovered (in 11 of the 25 mothers who had not fallen pregnant again). Assuming that the hippocampal volume continues to increase at the same rate, it would fall back into the normal range by around five years after the completion of pregnancy. Given the vital importance of the hippocampus for memory and navigation this seems to be a very promising result.

    This study used MRI to scan the brains of 50 women, of which 25 later fell pregnant for the first time. All were re-scanned after the babies were born, or after a similar period of time had elapsed for those who hadn’t fallen pregnant, so that brain structure could be compared before and after. Those women who did not fall pregnant served as the controls in which no significant structural changes were observed. Changes in brain tissue volume were only observed in those women who did fall pregnant confirming that pregnancy was the likely cause of the changes. They also performed an fMRI study looking for brain areas that were more strongly activated by pictures of each mother’s own baby compared to photos of other people’s babies. As there was considerable overlap between the brain areas more strongly activated by the mother’s own baby and those in which the brain volume reductions occurred, it seems likely that it reflects a process of specialisation for maternal attachment rather than collateral damage.  As these areas are commonly associated with the capacity for Theory of Mind, i.e. the ability to see the world from another’s perspective, these changes presumably reflect a tailoring of the mother’s brain to help them better anticipate the needs of their child.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I regularly tweet (@drjacklewis) interesting articles about recent breakthroughs in brain science and do a fortnightly Geek Chic’s Weird Science podcast on strange and wonderful stories from the world of science. Season 2 of my television series Secrets of the Brain starts on Insight TV later this month… so if you are in the UK or Ireland have Sky television you might consider setting your box to record the series on HD channel 564 and if you are elsewhere in Europe you will find it on other satellite/cable providers (check which channel it’s on in your country here). If it’s not available on your TV you can also stream it online via www.insight.tv

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  • The Future of Deep Brain Stimulation

    Ed Boyden is a professor at the Massachusett’s Institute of Technology who leads the Synthetic Neurobiology group. He’s credited with important contributions towards the revolutionary field of optogenetics. Essentially, it involves a bunch of molecular tools that make specific groups of neurons switch-on-and-offable simply by shining a light on them. This incredible innovation has given neuroscientists unprecedented level of precision in controlling the activity of different types of neuron in experiments trying to unpick the brain’s mind-bogglingly complex circuitry.

    It seems that he and his research team may well have done it again. They have developed another potentially incredibly powerful innovation that could fundamentally change how we approach Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). This new approach is called Temporal Interference Stimulation (TIS) and the breakthrough it offers is enabling deep brain structures to stimulated without having to cut through the skull and actually insert electrodes into the brain.

    The DBS approaches currently used in humans involve passing electrodes through holes in the skull all the way down to deep brain areas in order to deliver pulses of electrical stimulation at the desired location. This has become a relatively routine medical intervention that fundamentally improves quality of life for thousands of people suffering from a range of brain illnesses all over the world. It has proven effective in a variety of chronically-debilitating diseases including Parkinson’s Disease, Major Depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder helping to circumvent common problems whereby patients either don’t get any improvement from their medications, or do at first but then the drugs stop working after a period of time.

    DBS therapy is most striking in people with Parkinson’s patients. Gradual death of the dopamine neurons that play an important role in initiating voluntary movements is the root cause of Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine-boosting agents often help with their movement difficulties but the benefits do not usually last forever. The invention of NICE-approved DBS therapy has been a lifesaver for many thousands of people. By applying an electrical current to either the thalamus, globus pallidus or subthalamic nuclei, limb movements can be controlled as normal. Their distinctive seemingly hesitant, shuffling walking style can be replaced with a normal, confident striding gait at the flick of a switch.

    The surgically-implanted electrodes often yield remarkable improvements in their symptoms, but having to cut holes in people’s skulls and physically implant wires in their brains is fraught with risks and potential complications. TIS, at some point in the future, could offer the same benefits but without the need to put any man-made objects inside the brain.

    We’ve had technologies that are capable of influencing brain activity from the skull surface for many years. Both Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tcDCS), which sends electrical currents across the skull, and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which produces transient magnetic fields that extend across the skull, are both able to influence brain activity without the need for invasive surgery. But tcDCS and TMS are unable to influence areas deep inside the brain with any precision, they can only modulate brain activity at the surface. With TIS, all that it set to change as the technology progresses from experiments with mice, through larger and larger mammals, until it is eventually (hopefully) proven to be safe and effective in humans.

    As with all brilliant scientific solutions, TIS is elegant in its simplicity. A high frequency electrical current has no effect on brain tissue. At lower frequencies electrical currents can disrupt the usual flow of information in whatever brain tissue it is passed through. Here’s the clever bit. By applying two different sources of high frequency electrical current, at carefully separated positions on the scalp surface, where the two currents overlap sufficiently to cause interference in a way that reduces the frequency of the combined electrical signal it’s possible to alter how the brain tissue functions. Every other region that the electric currents pass through on the way down to the target location is unaffected – only where the beams cross.

    The team’s recent paper, published in the journal Cell (free to download!), describes how this technique was used to selectively stimulate the mouse hippocampus, deep inside the temporal lobes, from the top of the skull. While reaching down to the human basal ganglia from the skull surface is a much greater challenge – penetrating to a much greater depth, across a much thicker skull – this proof of principle makes the dream of deep brain stimulation without surgery seem a realistic prospect in the not too distant future.

    In addition to these monthly blogs, you can follow me on Twitter (@drjacklewis) where I post articles on breakthroughs in brain science and related topics. I also do a fortnightly science podcast with the lovely Lliana Bird. I also present a TV series called Secrets of the Brain on Insight TV. You can watch series 1 on Sky channel 564 (It’s on most nights!), or you can stream it here. Series 2 is out in Autumn 2017…

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  • Geek Chic Live at Latitude 2017

    The podcast that I co-host with Radio X’s Lliana Bird – Geek Chic’s Weird Science – is still going strong after nearly three years. Gobsmackingly, we are currently at number 2 in the iTunes science podcast charts behind none other than the mighty RadioLab. Last month we recorded a live podcast at the Cheltenham Science Festival with Goldsmith University’s Caspar Addyman and Greg Foot of Blue Peter fame. This month we borrowed Robin Ince and Helen Keen from the Infinite Monkey Cage for our live event at the 2017 Latitude Festival’s Wellcome Trust Arena. You can watch it below or, if you prefer, you can download it as a podcast (or better still, do us a favour and subscribe!) from iTunes, Acast, Libsyn, Podbay and various other podcast providers. To keep up to date on all the weird science news to hit the press each week, why not follow us on twitter too (@GCweirdscience). Enjoy…

     

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  • 2016 in Review

    2016 has been quite a year:

    On the 3rd January I went for a dip in a freezing cold lake in the Dutch countryside with a man who has learned to control his immune system using breathing techniques in combination with cold water immersion.

    Between January and May I wrote a book Mice Who Sing For Sex with my Geek Chic podcast co-host Lliana Bird. That hit the shelves in October and flew off them in the run up to Christmas.

    I flew out to the USA to work with a pair of NFL superstars and a supercar test driver to talk about how high performance athlete‘s brains work compared to the rest of us.

    An unexpected opportunity to appear on the sofa with Rylan for Big Brother’s Bit on the Side gave me the opportunity to use five brightly coloured jelly brains as colour code for different brain functions and used them to explain the cause of various errant behaviours exhibited by some of this year’s contestants.

    Participating in a debate organised by the Wellcome Trust on the Latitude Festival’s Literature Stage opened my eyes to the Porn Perspective.

    My TV highlight has to be a very enjoyable weekend that I spent spy on some unsuspecting guinea pigs with the BBC’s Michael Mosley a TV presenter of considerable experience and acclaim. Meet The Humans (working title) will be broadcast at some point on BBC Earth throughout the world in 2017. I learned a huge amount about what being a TV presenter is really all about and felt truly privileged to work with him and a crack team of Science TV producers and directors from BBC Bristol. Seeing how they all handled what was a huge logistical undertaking, with so many moving parts that innumerable things could have gone wrong, was a real privilege. All hands on deck performed with tremendous competence, efficiency and good humour throughout; even when the pressure was on and Sod’s Law threatened to tip the apple cart.

    The most notable achievement of this year career-wise is that, for the very first time, a show I’ve presented has been deemed worthy of a second series; not to mention a runner’s up prize for Best Science Series of 2016 at the Association for International Broadcaster’s Awards. Not bad considering we were pipped to the post by a documentary about a near perfectly preserved 5,000 year old man thawed out from a melting glacier. That’s pretty steep competition and I was only too happy to concede defeat to a series documenting such an extraordinary scientific discovery.

    Looking forward to 2017 there’s already plenty of exciting projects in the pipeline. My third book Science of Sin, scheduled for publication next autumn, is coming on leaps and bounds. I’ve wanted to write a book about the light neuroscience might be able to cast on the topic of Why We Do The Things We Know We Shouldn’t for ages. I’m very grateful to Bloomsbury Sigma for the opportunity to immerse myself in such a fascinating and diverse body of science.

    Filming for Secrets of the Brain 2 is already underway and, after the intensive period of filming, editing and voiceover ahead in the next four months, that particular seires scheduled to be ready for broadcast on www.insight.tv (ch 279 on Sky) over the summer. Happily it seems we’ve been able to re-recruit most of the team from series one. It is fortuitous that we could get almost everyone back because there really is no substitute for prior experience with this kind of show.

    The speaking circuit this year has taken me all over London, to Cheltenham, the Midlands, Barcelona, twice to Cologne courtesy of ITV Global / Germany and as far East as Berlin. My Neuroscience of Creativity talk always seems to go down particularly well and the C-HR festival of Creativity and Innovation, which took place in a beautiful architectural space – an abandoned department store slap bang in the centre of Berlin – was no exception. I must have hit a new Personal Best by answering questions from the audience for longer than the actual duration of the talk itself (90min talk, 150min Q&A)!

    Of all the ways I communicate the fruits of neuroscience research to the world, it’s the face-to-face contact with live audiences that I get the most personal satisfaction from. People always seem to have burning questions about their own brains, their kids, their ageing relatives and it gives me great pleasure to share what I know with others. So if you have an event coming up for which you have need of a motivational speaker that brings something a little different to the event, why not get in touch? I’ve got five 60-90 min talks, I can take off the shelf: Boosting Performance, Neuroscience of Decisions, Neuroscience of Creativity, Dealing with Change and even one on Gender Neuroscience that has turned out to be pretty effective at encouraging greater equality in the workplace.

    That said I’m always happy to make something bespoke to fit the specific event. I’m always happy to stick around afterward if the crowd fancies making the Q&A a bit more informal.

    All that remains to be said is to wish you happy holidays and a fantastic 2017.

    If you’d like to follow me on Twitter (@drjacklewis) you’ll get my daily tweets that flag the best of the neuroscience news that hits the lay press. The Geek Chic Weird Science podcast is still going strong after nearly three years, which can be accessed through iTunes, Podbay, Libsyn and many other podcast providers so if you fancy taking a lighter look at the world of science, that’s your badger. And finally, you’re at a loose end over the holiday season and fancy a break from the usual TV fare, then why not catch up on the (nearly) award-winning Secrets of the Brain by pointing your internet towards www.insight.tv (my parents are actually doing that right now…)

    Happy Christmas

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  • Fighting Dementia with Sea Hero Quest

    shq-logoAs we move around in the world we develop a sense of how to get from A to B. This relies heavily on the hippocampus, a brain structure nestled deep within each of the temporal lobes, responsible for many functions vital to cognition such as memory and navigation. This is the brain structure famed for becoming physically larger as a result of all the practice driving around London that the drivers of London’s famous Black Cabs have to accrue before they can pass “The Knowledge.” Whilst their memory for the 25,000 roads and 20,000 major landmarks that enable them to instantly reel off the route they’d take to get from one place to another is extraordinary, for the 33% of those born in 2015 will live long enough to develop dementia at some point in their lives this situation is reversed. Difficulties with navigation, even familiar routes between places visited many times before, is one of the problems in daily life that can herald the approach of full-blown dementia. Understanding the normal trajectory of changes in navigational ability over the lifetime of a health brain is a vital first step. With or without dementia our abilities to memories complex routes becomes slowly but surely compromised by the normal processes of age-related cognitive decline. We need to know what is normal for each age group before we could be in a position to use a steeper than normal decline in navigational ability as an early warning signal, ideally before any memory deficits have had a chance to rear their ugly heads. As our understanding of the metabolic processes that lead to various forms of dementia improve, this early warning could prove to be a vital mechanism in triggering prophylactic treatments early enough to slow down disease progression.

    memoriseHugo Spiers, a memory researcher and neuroscientist at University College London, launched a smartphone game in 2016 called Sea Hero Quest, which aims to do just this. Over 2.5 million people have played this surprisingly fun, engaging and challenging game so far, generating the equivalent of an astonishing 9,400 years worth of lab data. The game involves memorising a map of waterways around which a series of numbered buoys have been distributed. Once you’ve planned the journey you’re going to make and tucked it away in your working memory, the map is then taken  away and your job is then to steer your little fishing boat (increasingly customisable as you progress through the game) by tapping the left or right side of the touch screen. The terrain varies from idyllic sandy paradises to rainy, foggy, bumpy rides across perpetually undulating swell. Thanks to the funding from Deutsche Telekom and Glitchers – the tech-gurus who actually created the game – the graphics are beautifully rendered, the gameplay is smooth and unlike most games designed to answer important scientific questions, every aspect of the user experience is highly polished. As was the delivery of the first results announced at SfN 2016 and summarised below by the man himself…

     

     

    buoyPersonally I was surprised by how hard some of the levels were. I play a lot of brain training games (e.g. PEAK Review, BRAIN AGE 2 Review ), just to keep myself up to date on the latest offerings, and am now accustomed to finding myself able to get maximal scores on most categories of games pretty quickly through daily play. Not Sea Hero Quest. Once I got past the easier earlier levels, I often found myself getting lost in the mist, or going round and round in circles having forgotten how to get from buoy 3 to buoy 4. As a consequence, not only did I help scientists like Hugo Spiers and colleagues from the University of East Anglia and Alzheimers Research UK to generate data (anonymously, you only have to give your age) but I also got an insight into what the future might have in store for me should I become one of the unfortunate 1 in 3 that get clobbered by dementia in my post-retirement years. As you progress from level to level you periodically get to chase down one of a large variety of sea monsters. Having dodged innumerable obstacles along the way the monster in question eventually leaps out of the water at you and your task, is to resist the temptation to hit the button on your camera to take a photo of the rare and exotic sea beast in question, until the very last second when the captured image is at its most aesthetically pleasing.

    Overall, I found playing this game great fun, very challenging at times and doubly satisfying knowing that it would, in some small but meaningful way, help science to get some much needed answers about how the human brain keeps track of where it is and where it’s going in health, so we can better understand when this system breaks down in disease.

    img_1517I would just like to take a moment to applaud @HugoSpiers and collaborators for finding a way to genuinely enable people to #gameforgood. Hats off to you all… your Cannes Lion was thoroughly well deserved!

    In addition to these monthly blogs you can get daily brain tweets about other amazing developments in the world of neuroscience by following me on Twitter (@DrJackLewis). And for a fortnightly appraisal of the latest quirkly stories from the wonderful world of science on general there’s always the totally free Geek Chic Weird Science podcast available from iTunes, Podbay, Libsyn and many others.

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  • Porn Brain

    Last summer I was invited by the lovely people at the Latitude Festival to participate in a debate at the Literature Tent on the impact of online pornography on society.

    pornperspectiveonstage

    It was chaired by Dr Suzi Gage (@soozaphone) of Bristol (and by now Liverpool) University, known for her popular Guardian science column and podcast Say Why to Drugs. The other panelists were Martin Daubney (@MartinDaubney), former editor of lad’s mag Loaded for eight years and theatre-maker Christopher Green (@Kit_Green) creator and player of comedy Country ‘n’ Western heroine Tina C.

    My role was to bring the neuroscience perspective, Martin the media perspective and Chris was taking the arts angle. I got prepared quite a few weeks in advance and was stunned by what I found lurking in the academic literature. So I thought I’d share my main findings with you here in this month’s blog.

    When people think of addictions, compulsive consumption of various psychoactive substance is usually the first thing to spring to mind. Much research has demonstrated a hyper-responsiveness of the reward pathway – the ventral tegmental area in the midbrain and nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum in particular – to drug-related images in the brains of people addicted to recreational drugs like, for example, cocaine. This body of research also demonstrates that the activity generated in the reward pathways of drug addicts to pleasant images of scenes unrelated to drugs, is somewhat diminished compared to non-drug takers. In other words, excessive consumption of drugs seems to subtly rewire the reward pathway so that it becomes more sensitive to visual scenes relating to their preferred recreational drug and less so (than normal) to everything else. It seems this is not just limited to drugs, a similar impact on brain function is seen in people who over-consume porn too.

    img_0510It is important to bear in mind that the reward pathway is not only important for generating feelings of happiness when we participate in pleasurable activities, but it’s also instrumental in predicting what choices might bring us rewards in the future, which means it is critically involved in decision making. It’s role in helping us evaluate the benefits of one option over another extends to the point where this system, in combination with other nearby brain areas, can be thought of as providing the very drive that motivates us to pursue one course of action over another.

    In recent times, research into excessive consumption of various products accessed through the internet – online gaming, gambling and pornography, to name but a few – also leads to behaviours that have all the hallmarks of addiction, not to mention the altered neurological responses outlined above. There has been some resistance to this idea in various academic communities, but the movement to have these “arousal” addictions included in handbooks of psychiatric illness symptom classification, and in particular the DSM-5, is starting to gather momentum.

    On the basis of a huge survey investigating the pornographic consumption and sexual experiences of 28,000 Italian teenagers it seems that, for about one in ten boys who consume explicit online pornography on a daily basis, the habit is interfering with their ability to engage in real life sexual activities:

    It starts with lower reactions to porn sites. Then there is a general drop in libido, and in the end it becomes impossible to get an erection

    Carlos Forsta, President of the Italian Society for Andrology and Sexual Medicine.

    This may at first glance seem to fly directly in the face of the stereotype of the ultra-horny teenage boy, brimming full of the very sex hormones that would usually ensure a hair-trigger sexual response to any possibility of coitus. But in light of research conducted many years ago by joint winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, Nikolaas Tinbergen, it starts to make a lot more sense. In experiments conducted with “supernormal” stimuli, he observed that birds preferred to sit on larger than normal and / or more colourful eggs constructed from plaster, rather than their own real eggs. Similarly, herring gull chicks would peck harder and more often at a fake adult herring gull beak with brighter or more numerous red spots than the real thing, in a vain effort to elicit a regurgitated dinner. The point is that the larger than real life stimuli seem to have short-circuited the birds’ primal instincts leading to a preference that would ultimately be deleterious to the survival of the bird’s progeny.

    It seems that the ubiquitous availability of explicit internet pornography is leading to a similar scenario in modern day internet addicted teenage boys. A subconscious preference for artificial, supernormal, explicit porn over actual sexual partners seems to be occurring with alarming regularity in adolescents who let their penchant for titillating pornographic films get out of control. In his TED talk entitled “Why I stopped watching porn” Ran Gavrieli gives an excellent and compelling account of some of the key differences between what pornographic films actually show and the relatively tame sensory stimuli involved in genuinely satisfying, intimate sexual behaviour between consenting adults.

    Essentially, he points out that themes typically conveyed on free online porn sites, such as female subordination and extreme close ups of penetration to name but a few, are the human sexual equivalent of the brightly coloured, super-sized eggs and beak markings from Prof Tinbergen’s experiments (just not in so many words!). Porn is a supernormal stimulus, dominated by explicit close ups of penetration that you simply can’t reproduce in reality (the penis and eyeballs will always be separated by a set distance, unless you are exceedingly flexible, of course). Inevitably the real thing pales into insignificance by comparison after sufficient daily use of explicit porn of virtually infinite variety. No wonder boys are struggling to get it up!

    img_0538This isn’t to say that there is no place for pornography in society. Regardless of your attitudes on this topic, it certainly isn’t going away any time soon. However it may be useful for porn fans to bear in mind the concept of everything in moderation. Once one genre of porn is no longer arousing there are many other categories to choose from. Once the relatively soft porn is no longer stimulating, casual browsing will always yield more explicit options. Eventually the kind of sexual activities we are likely to have access to in real life become insufficient to yield an erection for long enough to reach climax, which will inevitably lead to relationship problems. And nobody wants that.

    The good news is that abstinence from pornography is usually sufficient to enable normal biological sexual function to eventually return. Interestingly, in older men this takes two months, whilst in younger men it can take much longer: four to five months. Find out more in the Latitude Podcast of the Porn Perspective Debate.

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  • 2016 Showreel

    In my 8 years of presenting / contributing as an expert to TV shows I’ve appeared on every British terrestrial television channel and half a dozen or so international cable and satellite channels. My most recent series Secrets of the Brain is available to be streamed for free from anywhere in the world on the dedicated ultra high definition digital channel insight.tv (also on sky channel 279 in the UK). It’s without a shadow of a doubt the best presenting work I’ve done so far and it even got shortlisted for an AIB award.

    Here’s my brand new showreel dedicated entirely to SotB.

    Hope you like it…

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  • Secrets of the Brain

    SECRETS-OF-THE-BRAINI haven’t had a new TV series on the box for quite some time, but at 9pm tonight on Sky channel 279 my latest series Secrets of the Brain hits our screens. The first episode is all about memory. I take on the reigning world memory champion in a devilishly difficult mnemonic challenge and learn from him the techniques he uses to retain mind-bogglingly large amounts of information in a surprisingly short period of time.

    Secrets of the Brain is also available to stream in ultra-high definition at www.insight.tv and the first 3 episode have already been released, available to view at your leisure, anytime. Over the course of each of these 10 x 1 hour episodes we explore the depths of human brain function by meeting people with amazing brains and others with extraordinary brain malfunctions.

    DrJackAtIcemanLakeI hang out with the Iceman Wim Hoff to understand how we can all plunge ourselves into icy water with minimum discomfort by following a few simple techniques. I meet an amputee whose state of the art prosthetic limb has enabled him to conquer his phantom limb pain. I go car racing around the track at Goodwood as part of my investigation into how our perception of time can expand and contract according to what we happen to be doing at the time. I spend an uncomfortable night wired up in a sleep lab, meet people suffering with narcolepsy and keep some student guinea pigs up all night to gain a better understanding of the importance of sleep. I get hammered to investigate the effect of alcohol on creativity. I interview one of Europe’s leading ophthalmic surgeons as he conducts surgery to implant a telescopic lens into the eye of a patient suffering with macular degeneration. I meet someone with acquired prosopagnosia, who is completely unable to recognise faces, even those of his nearest and dearest. I dine on a delicious multisensory feat with a synaesthetic man to get a handle on how our sense can get cross-wired. Throughout this adventure I’m accompanied by Pete Heat; a man with hundreds of tricks up his sleeve that really help bring the science to life with some brilliant magic.

    Wired Up Sleep LabAll this, and more, coming up over the next few weeks in what I genuinely think might be my best TV work to date. The Brighton-based production company who made the series – Lambent Productions – are some of the loveliest TV people I’ve ever worked with. Every single member of staff went above and beyond the call of duty to make this series as good as it could possibly be. I’m very grateful to everyone who gave their absolute best every day and in particular Ollie Tait (co-MD of Lambent) with whom I worked very closely throughout. It’s always great to work with people who make you feel relaxed in front of camera and they really did make me feel extremely comfortable and relaxed. I’d almost go so far as to say a part of the family. And I really hope that comes across…

    As well as these monthly blogs you can also follow me on Twitter. Also, in addition to my first book Sort Your Brain Out, my second offering Mice Who Sing For Sex is now available to preorder. It is the book of the Geek Chic Weird Science podcast I do with Lliana Bird, telling the story of over a hundred weird and wonderful nuggets of research to hit the press from many different scientific disciplines.

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  • Racing Brains

    KoenigseggI’ve been digging around in the scientific literature recently in search of research investigating racing drivers’ brains. Having stumbled a handful of pretty incredible facts I thought I’d devote this month’s blog to sharing these with you.

    Over many thousand of hours of practice and experience the driver’s brains become honed to perform the incredibly demanding cognitive task of getting round the track, lap after lap, as fast as human possible, without spinning out of control. This is much more physically demanding than most people imagine. For instance, the forces delivered through the steering wheel when travelling at up to 200 mph on a typical track can reach a magnitude equivalent to carrying 9 kg in each hand. Maintaining the intensely focused concentration required to deal with the stream of rapidly changing sensory information also requires razor sharp reflexes and amazingly fast reaction times. In fact, one study demonstrated that there is no overlap in the spread of reaction times between elite and amateur racing drivers (as measured by the Vienna Reaction Apparatus). In other words, the slowest reaction times for the elite drivers across the whole experiment were still faster than the best reaction times logged by the amateurs.

    adrenalsAnother biological specialisation exhibited by the elite drivers is their capacity to produce adrenaline. Their adrenal glands are larger than the rest of us so that they can produce more of this vital performance-enhancing hormone under high pressure racing circumstances. Adrenaline increases blood flow to the brain, heart and skeletal muscles, inducing an elevated heart rate and ventilation, whilst narrowing the blood vessels that feed other organs like the digestive system. This improves reaction times and the strength of muscular contractions to enable fight or flight to take place; or both as is the case in racing drivers. This is not specific to racing drivers. Athletes from many different sports have been found to have an enlarged adrenal gland, something referred to in the literature as the Sports Adrenal Medulla.

    A further study compared the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline (primary neurotransmitter of the sympathetic nervous system) in elite racing drivers as they cycled to exhaustion in a staged bike ride versus whilst racing their cars. They were found to produce double the quantity of adrenaline whilst racing, as measured via detection of metabolites in their urine. I found this finding particularly extraordinary. You might have imagined that exercising to exhaustion would be more demanding on the body, but it just goes to show how cognitively demanding racing is. Presumably the extra adrenaline is required to help the brain deal with cognitive demands.

    retrosplenialSeveral studies have scanned the brains of elite racing drivers using fMRI revealing that there is relatively little activity across the cortical surface compared to amateur drivers. This is thought to reflect the fact that racing is simply less taxing for the elite drivers. Much more of the cognitive processing required to manoeuvre the car around a constantly changing terrain at great speed can be handled subconsciously, freeing up precious conscious resources for dealing with unexpected occurrences.

    Their extensive training also seems to have led to some racing driving-specific brain specialisations as they appear to exhibit greater activation in the retrosplenial cortex. This area is known to be involved in creating a view-independent model of environment being navigated. In other words it enables them to build a picture of the whole track in their mind’s eye so that they have an awareness of what to expect beyond the next turn. This skill is clearly vital to staying on the ideal racing line.

    IMG_8062I recently pitted my own amateur racing skills against Christoffer – the official test driver of the Koenigsegg supercar – in an ultra-realistic simulator of Spain’s famous Ascari race track. The real thing, which he drives on a daily basis, is capable of producing 1,400 brake horsepower! Putting that into context, that’s two and a half times more powerful than a top of the range Ferrari! I don’t think it will come as any surprise to hear that he smashed me out of the park.

    In addition to these monthly blogs you can also follow me on Twitter for a daily download of the most interesting neuroscience research to hit the press. In addition to my first best-selling book Sort Your Brain Out, my second Mice Who Sing For Sex is now available to pre-order and tells the story of over a hundred weird and wonderful nuggets of research from full the length and breadth of scientific research.

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  • Gogglebox-Inspired Brain Hack by Dr Jack

    Gogglebox_logoI love Channel 4’s Gogglebox. In case you’ve never had the pleasure – it’s a TV series where everyday British people’s living rooms are fitted out with TV cameras to capture the spontaneous conversation that arises as they sit together watching the week’s big shows on their own television. Watching people watching television may not sound like a particularly interesting way to pass the time but I personally find it absolutely fascinating. In fact, I’ve tried on several occasions to convince my friends to be filmed watching Gogglebox with me so that we can launch a YouTube channel where friends and families all over the country can post their own videos of their own running commentary as they watch people on television who themselves are watching television. That way, viewers of this meta-Gogglebox channel can amuse themselves by watching people on the telly who are watching people on the telly who are watching telly.

    Am I the only one to find this prospect tantalising?

    Apparently so. Nobody’s ever taken me up on the offer…!

    sid-siddiquiGogglebox has a strange way of making me feel connected to my fellow Brits up and down the length of the nation. Why? I think it’s because for such a wide diversity of households, featuring such a variety of people who seem, at first glance, to be completely different yet deep down clearly share a very similar set of values. It’s surprisingly satisfying to find that you share certain strong opinions, make similar observations and perhaps most tellingly read between the lines in a similar way to people of a completely different age, regional dialect, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and/or sexuality. For example, I find myself agreeing with most of the observations made by the father and two sons in Nottingham, yet the slang that the Brixton girls use are the words most familiar to my ear. So, bizarrely, I find myself identify most closely with three guys of south Asian origin and two girls of Afro-Caribbean origin.

    Sandy and SandraIt reminds me that being British ain’t so bad after all and that feeling proud of my nation (rather than a little bit apologetic, as our default setting seems to be under normal circumstances) is not such a terrible thing. Jeremy Paxman’s brilliant book: “The English” started this process in me many years ago and now Gogglebox has picked up where he left off but applying this newfound pride to the whole of Britain rather than just England. I like my weekly reminder that the average, everyday, normal British person can be both amusing and insightful. I enjoy contemplating that, despite our varying outward appearances, accents and slang, scratch the surface and we’re actually much more similar than we are different deep down, on the grand scheme of things. It  genuinely warms the cockles of my soul…

    Anyway, I digress. The main reason I wanted to blog about Gogglebox this month was not just to sing its praises in terms of it’s capacity for promoting a much needed sense of national togetherness, but rather to point out a simple tweak to a common habit that takes place in living rooms all over the UK. This could genuinely help each and every one of us to take some simple steps to avoid developing Type II diabetes. So you could view this as my small offering in the battle against the rising global obesity epidemic.

    MaloneTreatsGreater Manchester’s contribution to Gogglebox – the Malones – are a family unit comprising a husband and wife accompanied by two teenage sons and several huge dogs that are clearly an intrinsic and dearly loved part of the family. One ever-present feature in their segments of the show is a huge box of sweets or plate of cakes and biscuits placed slap bang in front of them on the footrest siting between them and the television. Every single time I see this I think to myself: bad idea. It may seem perfectly harmless, hospitable even, but in a world defined by the overabundance of sweet, fatty, delicious foods it’s already hard enough to reduce calorie intake to a reasonable level without having temptation permanently within your field of view! With a couple of simple tweaks a scenario that actively promotes the mindless nibbling that inevitably leads to weight gain can be converted into one that helps us to limit intake of foods that are naughty but nice.

    The first thing you should do if you’re keen to reduce the amount of food you eat late at night, whilst unwinding in front of the telly after a tiring day, is to never eat straight out of the packet. When our mind’s are distracted by a TV show or film we simply don’t notice how much food we are eating and so we eat lots without really appreciating it. Whilst the Malones nearly get this bit right, they take the approach of emptying the entire tray of Mr Kipling’s pies onto a large plate for everyone to help themselves to. I would argue that a better strategy would be to put just one or two out on a small plate. That way if they want more then they have to put in effort to go and get it from the kitchen. Several studies have shown that the smaller the plate, bowl, serving spoon etc used to hold the food, the less of it ends up being consumed. Better still, cut these small cakes in half or quarters and empty them directly onto the plate to further encourage a lesser calorie intake by reducing portion size.

    The second brain hack is to move the plate or bowl out of your field of vision, rather than having it sat directly in front of you. Out of sight, out of mind. The more frequently your eyes catch sight of the snack food, the more temptation you have do resist. If you move it out of view you’ll have less temptation to fight.

    IMG_8317Thanks to the Malones, I have started applying these simple brain hacks in my own life. I’ve always been partial to Cadbury’s chocolate fingers. But I’d often go through a whole packet in a night without really remembering munching through them. Having been reminded by the Malones of my tactical error, I now load up a shot glass with half a dozen fingers and put the box back in the freezer (yes, in the freezer). I then place them outside my line of vision directly to the right of my head where I can only see it if I turn my head 90 degrees.

    The result of using this simple brace of brain hacks on a daily basis is that,  when I switch off the box to hit the hay at the end of an evening of being a “sofa sloth”, I’ll typically find that that there are still a couple of uneaten chocolate fingers left in the shot glass. That’s something that simply never happened when I ate straight out of the box. By dishing out a small portion I set the maximum dose to a modest number of calories. And by positioning them out of sight, I ended up completely forgetting that they were even there, reducing the amount of fast-release carbs yet further!!

    Instead of eating a couple of dozen chocolate biscuits in one sitting, this simple tweak to my daily habit means that I’m now only munching my way through four, five or six of them. The best bit of all? It requires no mental discipline from me whatsoever to resist the temptation.

    I’m even starting to see a comeback of something whose days I thought were long gone – my six-pack is mysteriously beginning to re-emerge (well, to be honest it’s only really visible when I’m stretched out in the bath or on the beach, but it’s a step in the right direction!!

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs you can follow me on Twitter for a daily dose of breakthroughs in brain science. My new book – Mice Who Sing For Sex is now available to pre-order. It’s a compilation of the strange and wonderful science stories to emerge in the press over the past two years in the Geek Chic’s Weird Science podcast presented by Lliana Bird and I. And finally my brand new series “Secrets of the Brain” will soon be available to stream from the Insight TV website.

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