• Superstitions & Conspiracies

    While writing The Science Of Sin I spent a lot of time mulling over beliefs. I’ve since moved on from focusing on religious beliefs, to explore a wider range of illogical and evidentially-unfounded assumptions that people often hold about how the world works and what goes on in it. It always comes as a shock to the system when I realise that a friend or family member has firmly-held beliefs about a superstition or conspiracy theory, despite the absence of any strong evidence to support it, so I thought I’d have a dig around in the studies that have sought to explain these tendencies.

    Do you believe in the supernatural?

    For example, I was accompanied all the way through my school days (from 5 to 18 years old) by a dear friend who benefited from exactly the same high standards of education, yet whose whose beliefs became permanently warped by the MMR-jab-causes-autism scandal. This particular conspiracy theory arose from the ashes of an utterly flawed research paper the results of which became distorted by bias and then that blown completely out of proportion. While the scandal received great attention, the large body of evidence refuting it did not penetrate society so deeply, which ultimately led my friend to deny his daughters a potentially life-saving medicine.

    Another childhood friend whose aptitude for critical thinking could never be doubted (he went to a top-notch school, studied science at an elite university and is currently head of legal affairs for a major telecommunications firm) is so concerned about the potential impact of electromagnetic radiation emitted from various household devices, that he regularly switches off the wifi hub in his home.

    Wifi in the home poses no threat to your brain

    Science encourages a method of critical thinking that involves evaluating the evidence for and against a certain notion and trying to draw balanced conclusions based on rational evaluation of the data; rather than deciding what to believe based on a hunch, impulse or emotionally-fuelled conviction. Yet scientists are not completely immune to false beliefs. Far from it. When a more analytical mode of thought becomes second nature, scientific training can, at best, help to insulate people from the temptation to blindly-accept the received wisdom of seemingly well-intentioned strangers, conspiracy theorists and flagrant propaganda peddlers alike, but it certainly is no miracle cure.

    I find it fascinating, if not a little odd, that ostensibly intelligent people can hold beliefs that fly so squarely in the face of the actual evidence (autism is not caused by the MMR vaccine; wifi in the home is very unlikely to be a health risk). So this month’s blog is dedicated to outlining the findings of a recently published research paper that investigated the oft-described but rarely investigated link between people who are more apt to spot illusory patterns in random data and those who hold superstitious beliefs and/or give credence to conspiracy theories.

    Do you wish upon a falling star?

    Before I delve into that data, in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit to engaging in a certain amount of superstitious behaviour myself. Knocking on wood for luck at the moment my words might be tempting fate and wishing on a falling star whenever I spot a meteor zipping across the sky are good examples. In my defence, in tacit acknowledgement that the superstitious responses I permit myself to indulge in are completely imaginary and have nothing to do with reality, I often change the rules of engagement on a whim rather than enduring any inconvenience on my part. For example, when I see a lone magpie (which is allegedly unlucky for those who’ve yet to read the poem that inspired this ridiculous belief) rather than protecting myself by uttering the bad-luck-neutralising charm: “Good morning, Sir John” – I wink at it instead. Why? Because the University of Nottingham campus where I did my undergraduate degree in neuroscience was completely over-run with magpies. It became annoying to say the “magic words” over and over again each day and I was starting to worry about the looks I was getting from passers by when my mumblings drew their attention.

    Over the years I’ve broken the rules of conventional paranormal beliefs yet further by: a) casting my gaze around, actively searching for a second magpie (NB two magpies is supposedly lucky) whenever I’d spotted a first and then b) accepting the sound of the distinctive call of a second magpie as proof of its existence should I find myself unable to actually see the fortuitous second. I have always felt free as a bird when it came to taking such liberties because all superstitions are made up anyway, so I felt comfortable that it wouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference either way.

    One for sadness, two for joy… (it’s a load of old cobblers, but harmless really, I would argue)

    While I choose to indulge myself in flights of fancy that are, at the end of the day, utterly harmless and regularly bend the rules of my silly superstitious beliefs to help avoid any convenience in my real life, the consequences of my friends’ respective irrational beliefs could genuinely cause harm. Accepting conspiracy theories as a genuine phenomenon really could end up causing real life problems as one person dear to my heart has allowed his false beliefs to interfere with an important decision that could have a serious impact on the health of his daughters, while the other is driving his wife up the wall every time she tries (and inevitably fails) to access the internet at home.

    If I flipped a coin over and
    over again, recording whether it came up heads (H) or tails (T) you could get
    all sorts of different outcomes. Some random sequences look, at a glance, to be
    genuinely random, but others may show all the signs of a distinctive pattern
    that gives us the sense that it has been organised by some external force.

    This is the actual coin I flipped (why would I lie)

    Sequence 1: H, H, H, H, H, T, T, T, H, H

    Sequence 2: H, T, T, T, H, T, H, H, T, T

    Does one of the above sequences seem more random than the other? Many of you will find yourselves with the distinct feeling that it would be unlikely for a genuinely random sequence of coin tosses to result in 5 heads in a row, or that a head to tail ratio of 7:3 skews too far from the expected 50/50 split of probabilities, both of which are features of Sequence 1, but I promise you (cross my heart and hope to die) that I really did flip a coin 20 times and Sequence 1 is truly what resulted from the first ten tosses and Sequence 2 really is what resulted from the second set of ten tosses.

    If you do find yourself struggling to accept that this could possibly be true, convinced that there must be some untoward meddling going on in the background to yield such a distinctive feature as 5 heads in a row (followed by a suspiciously tidy 3 tails in a row, then 2 consecutive heads), then according to van Prooijen et al (2018) you are probably also prone to superstitious beliefs and/or conspiracy theories too. Those among you who are perfectly willing to accept that all sorts of suspiciously organised-looking sequences can naturally emerge from a series of random events are, conversely, much less likely to buy into superstitious claptrap and compelling yet false conspiratorial fabrications.

    They started out by getting nearly 300 people to look at sequences of coin flips and declare which ones they thought look suspicious organised (determined, in their words) and which looked genuinely random to get a measure of that particular person’s propensity to detect illusory patterns. The same people then filled out a bunch of questionnaires about how plausible they found several different commonly encountered conspiracy theories such as: “The US government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks” and some made up ones like: “Red Bull contains illegal substances that raise the desire for the product.” They also measured how superstitious these same people were by getting them to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like: “Horoscopes are right too often for it to be a coincidence” or even: “I think I could learn to read other people’s minds if I wanted to.”

    By running appropriate statistical analyses on the data they found positive correlations between the detection of seemingly-meaningful patterns in actually-random data and the belief in both conspiracy theories and superstitions. Perhaps the next logical step would be to include some questions relating to illusory pattern detection in the compulsory testing of 11-, 13-, 15-year-olds to establish which young minds might benefit the most from extra tuition in critical thinking and statistics.

    I am, of course, joking.

    Or am I…?

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs I also regularly tweet about the interesting brain research articles I stumble on in the press (@drjacklewis) and will be doing a couple of talks over the next few months about my new book: The Science of Sin.

    Mon 8th April – 8pm – Cabaret Bar, Pleasance – Edinburgh International Science Festival – Tickets Available Here: bit.ly/2IadGX9

    Fri 7th June – 6:30pm – Ron Cooke Hub, University of York – York Festival of Ideas 2019 – Tickets not available at time of writing…

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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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  • Do You Remember That Time…?

    Timehop is a reminiscence app for those that don’t already have Facebook. It pulls photos from your social media streams to remind you what you were up to a year ago, 5 years, 10 years ago etc. There’s nothing quite like a photo to trigger memories of a certain period of life. Sometimes I wonder if I would even be able to recall a tiny fraction of my life’s events in a world before photography. It’s usually the case that if a life event is deemed worthy of being captured in a photograph, then seeing it again will encourage a positive frame of mind. Only yesterday I overheard a relevant discussion between a pair of colleagues in my local supermarket. One showed the other a photograph of a family trip to Jamaica on his smartphone and the other murmured: “I love looking at old photographs, it’s just the best.”

    The damage that Alzheimer’s disease does to the brain regions that support retrieval of autobiographical memories can  eventually extinguish a person’s very sense of self, more often than not, the abolition of recollections from early on in life doesn’t occur until the end of the process. For most of our lives, from developing a sense of self in infancy, to ultimately losing it once and for all, our sense of who we are follows an arc that seems to be wholly dependent on the  accumulation of most poignant memories, often revolving around novel and emotionally stimulating experiences. They are a reference point from which we get our sense of who we are. They are physically manifested in extra synaptic connections in neural circuitry distributed all across the brain, far beyond the hippocampus famed for it’s involvement in the creation and retrieval of memories. This brain blog is about the cues that can trigger recollection of our life’s key experiences that are so important in defining to ourselves who we are.

    At first a newborn infant has no sense of self. At this stage, even the very senses it uses to understand the world around it have yet to develop to the point where reliable information can be gleaned regarding what’s out there. The brain first must be exposed to a vast torrent of sensory experiences that help to shape and mature brain areas that crunch the information coming in through the various sensory systems during early brain development. The capacity to actively explore the environment further enhances these memories for our early experiences, until sufficient experimentation of cause and effect results, miraculously, at some point during the second year of life (usually between 15 and 24 months) in the classic signs of awareness of selfhood. Infants recognise that the reflection in a mirror is themselves, as evidenced by attempts to wipe off a coloured mark that might have been surreptitiously smeared on their cheek.

    Our sense of self develops in childhood as we experience more and more significant, emotionally affecting life episodes, which are each logged away deep somewhere in the recesses of our mind. Foods and people we like and dislike. Places in which we experienced pleasures and pains. Circumstances associated with unpleasant emotions associated with hunger, cold and threats, others that predicted feelings of comfort, excitement and laughter. Life’s surprises and first time encounters dominate those memories that are most easily brought to mind.

    Once we look back on childhood from the perspective of a fully-grown adult some interesting quirks of memory start to become evident. First is that memories from our earliest years of life are wiped. This childhood amnesia manifests as a complete inability to recall much of what happened to us before the age of three or four. Perhaps the odd fleeting memory of one or two key events at the age of four at best, but nothing from the ages of 0-3 years old.

    The sense of smell has an astonishing capacity to remind us of early childhood memories. This can be accounted for by the fact that, of all our senses, the olfactory system is the only one that plugs directly into the brain’s cortex without first filtering through the thalamus. The thalamus is the brain’s major junction box through which the senses of vision, hearing, touch and taste are required to interface before being shuttled on for further processing at various dedicated patches of the crinkly outer surface of brain tissue. There are two major sites at which the sense of smell is generated according to the different types of gaseous chemicals detected deep inside the nostrils by hundreds of different types of olfactory receptor. One is on the underside of the frontal cortex and another on the medial (inward-facing) temporal lobes. The temporal lobes also house the hippocampus (fundamental to the creation of new memories) and the amygdala (critical for the production of emotions) perhaps explaining why scents tend to produce a powerfully emotional sense of reminiscence, typically evoking memories from before the age of 10.

    The reminiscence bump describes the observation that, further back than their most recent experiences, adults over the age of fifty are most likely to recall experiences from late adolescence and early adulthood (15-30 years old). Whether cues used to elicit important memories are pictures or individual words, the majority of autobiographical episodes that pop into our mind tend to come from this period of life. A period in which significant events mold our character and help to form our adult self.

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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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  • The Iceman Cometh by Dr Jack

    Have you ever heard of the Iceman? He is a remarkable Dutchman who has developed what seems like genuine superpowers. His many accomplishments include hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro wearing just hiking boots and shorts, swimming underwater for over 50m in a frozen Finnish lake and running a marathon 200m north of the Arctic Circle. However the most impressive thing about this particular real-life superhuman is that far from claiming to be unique, instead he boasts that anyone can do it. In the process of taking steps to prove this to the doubters he has brought the Wim Hoff method under scientific scrutiny which has led directly to an amazing discovery – we really can control our immune systems!!

    IMG_7430I choose to write about this now because on 1st Jan 2016 I had to shrug off my hangover to fly to Amsterdam. On the 2nd Jan 2016 I met up with a Professor of Immunology to discuss the latest published scientific studies on the Iceman and his disciples designed to test and ultimately explain the mechanisms though which their impressive abilities to withstand the pain of freezing cold temperatures might be achieved. Then on the morning of 3rd Jan 2016 I finally met Wim Hoff and by midday, after just an hour’s training, I was neck deep in a cold lake in the middle of the Dutch countryside with 300 enthusiasts. Life can be strange sometimes.

    What I learned over the course of these few illuminating days in the Netherlands at the beginning of the month is that the Wim Hoff technique essentially involves three key processes: hyperventilation, cold immersion and a meditative mind state. Better still, each stage actually feeds into the next in a scientifically plausible manner.

    Hyperventilation – what is it good for?

    When we think of hyperventilation most people focus on the fact that it will saturate the blood with oxygen thus enabling more energy to be released when performing some kind of physically or mentally demanding task. Of course by breathing in and out, deeply and rapidly, for prolonged periods of time (in my case 3 sets of 30 full inhalation/exhalation cycles) as well as increasing oxygen input it will also eliminate more of the major waste material of metabolism that is carbon dioxide. And this, it turns out, is the most important part of the equation when it comes to withstanding environmental temperatures that would usually be deemed to be painfully cold.

    When carbon dioxide is dissolved in your blood it forms a weakly acidic solution called carbonic acid. So the more carbon dioxide in your blood the more acidic it is. Conversely by removing more and more of this carbon dioxide from solution you can consciously exert control over your blood’s pH by making it increasingly alkaline. In fact, it turns out that a pro like Wim can shift his blood pH from 7.2 right up to a more alkaline 7.85. Now that might not sound like a huge difference, but bearing in mind that on a scale that runs from 1 (extremely acidic) to 14 (extremely alkaline) this make 7.2 more or less bang on neutral and 7.85 is getting into the realms of weakly alkaline.


    Alkaline blood – so what?

    So what happens if you make your blood weakly alkaline through a few bouts of hyperventilation. I’ll give you a clue, why would women in the process of giving birth to a child instinctively hyperventilate? Pain relief. You see what Wim stumbled upon as he was experimenting with different techniques to try and find the peace of mind he sought during the years after his wife died in 1995 leaving him to raise 4 children single-handedly was that by making your blood every so slightly alkaline you render pain receptors inoperable.

    There is a special “trimer” protein inside your skin’s nociceptors – the specialised receptors embedded in your skin that send electrical messages to the brain that end up being perceived as painful whenever a potentially damaging stimulus (like extreme cold) is detected in the environment. Trimers are so-called because they are formed from three separate strings of amino acids that wrap around each other to form a complex structure with a very specific function – signalling pain. But in the presence of slightly alkaline blood these three parts separate rendering the pain receptors unable to send any signals. Therefore the invigorating cold can be experienced in the absence of an associated perception of pain! So simple, but so clever.

    How Cold Immersion begets a Meditative State

    As I discovered on that cool day in early January, once you’ve got your blood alkalinity up through hyperventilation you can immerse yourself in cold water without feeling any pain. You do feel the cold, just with the aversive component of this experience switched off. And it was this experience of cold without pain that helped Wim to focus his mind not on the horrors of the past, not on the worrying aspects of the future, but to be centred entirely on the present. The exhilarating feeling of having the cold pressing in from all sides whilst in a state of undress. Getting into a meditative state through cold immersion was the only technique that reliably helped him to stay “in the moment” sufficiently to achieve the peace of mind he was looking for.

    IMG_7427Wim Hoff is a lively character. Sitting still in peace and quiet is simply not his style. He is almost perpetually in motion. Any spare moment he will take the opportunity to do some chin ups, balance his body on his elbow like some kind of breakdance fiend or simply do the splits. And this is a part of the overall process of becoming the Iceman. In addition to the cytokines released in response to regular cold exposure, Wim’s body is also thought to release myokines – messenger proteins released from active muscles. The combination of these influences means that his DNA is being read differently from the rest of us more sedentary modern humans.

    Hyper Life versus the Easy Life

    It’s almost as if Wim has managed to trick his body into reverting to caveman mode. There is scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that after decades of leading a hyperactive, hyperventilated life including daily exposure to extreme conditions, every single one of his cells has started to read off a different set of genes to the rest of us. I’ve never met anyone with more energy, yet he doesn’t eat breakfast or lunch, just one (presumably huge) meal in the early evening, which is probably how our ancient ancestors dined having spent the whole day hunting and foraging for the evening meal. We modern men and women on the other hand spend our days ensconced in centrally heated / air conditioned homes and workplaces, spending the vast proportion of our days sedentary with packed fridges just a few steps away and so our bodies switch on genes that adequately support this easy life.

    A New Perspective

    IMG_7429Many diseases that used to kill off our ancestors in huge numbers are now firmly under control thanks to the marvels of modern medicine. Of those which still place our lives and quality of life in peril, several involve and element of over-activity in our immune systems; so-called autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, to name but few. Wim’s brave auto-experimentation, combined with his profound desire to bring his discoveries firmly under the scrutiny of science have enabled the revelation that he has incredible control over his immune system. He (and volunteers who have followed his approach under clinical conditions) can bring down the levels of pro-inflammatory IL-6 and IL-8, whilst boosting levels of anti-inflammatory IL-10 to the point where he doesn’t get sick when exposed to bacterial endotoxins. Whilst control subjects respond to the toxic injection by shivering feverishly within about half an hour, the Iceman sits there unperturbed by the nasties in his bloodstream. The potential to learn his technique in order to reduce overactive immune systems and thereby defeating various autoimmune diseases is bringing hope to many whom had previously lost faith in prospect of a cure.

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, you can follow me on Twitter (@drjacklewis) for daily updates on breakthroughs in neuroscience, buy my first book Sort Your Brain Out at all good bookshops and see me back on your TV’s very soon in two brand new series on insight.tv and Red Bull TV!


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  • Bionic Brain Adaptations by Dr Jack Lewis

    luke-skywalker-arm-chopFirst I met a bona fide bionic man in Cambridge – that got me thinking about an essay I wrote whilst in my undergraduate neuroscience days. It explained, in great molecular detail, the obstacles that would have to be overcome for a robotic limb to ever adequately replace the functional repertoire of a severed one. In other words I described what it would take to do a “Luke Skywalker” (for those who actively avoid Star Wars: Luke is the hero who get his arm chopped off in a light sabre battle only to have an operation that replaces the severed limb with a fully-functional robotic one that he controls as effortlessly as the original).

    luke skywalker armSecond I flew to Kyoto – to interview the Godfather of Androids, a man who has created some of the most sophisticated human-like robots in the world. Over ten days of filming I must have come face-to-face with over a dozen robots. Each time I thought back to something that happened, totally spontaneously, during a game of Jenga with Nigel Ackland – my real life Luke Skywalker.

    Finally, Nigel performed a manouevre with his robotic arm that no human could with a mortal one. This event brought to mind a classic series of Japanese neurophysiology experiments from the lab of Professor Iriki. These studies expanded our understanding of how brains keep track of the space around us. In particular, how brains distinguish between parts of the environment that can be influenced with a extended arm (plus any tool that provides an extension), and parts that cannot (NB see in particular the original observations from 1996).

    Consequently, this month’s brain blog is dedicated to a combination of…

    Robotic Technology, Human Determination & Neuroplasticity

    neglectThe parietal cortex of the primate brain (including the human primate) is responsible for, among several other important functions, our awareness of space. For example, damage to the patch of brain tissue that resides where the parietal lobe borders its temporal and occipital lobe neighbours can lead to neglect if it occurs on the right side of the head (See the images in this free classic paper on neglect if you want to see exactly where in the brain this is) – resulting in the person’s awareness of the left side of everything being highly compromised. Give someone with neglect a piece of paper with circles drawn all over it, asking them to place a mark at the centre of each, they only mark circles on the right side of the page. Ask them to draw a clock face and they will not draw the numbers on the left side (i.e. having successfully drawn a circle and the hours from 12 to 6 on the right hand side, they’ll typically omit the hours of 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 and 11 because they lack awareness of what should be on the left side of a clock face). They will only eat food from the right side of their plate. They will often even only shave the right side of their face, dress the right side of their body. Their awareness of “leftness” has been fundamentally compromised. Such is the importance of the parietal cortex to our awareness of space.

    iriki macaqueTowards the end of the 90’s and early 00’s researchers working with Japanese macaques trained to reach for food rewards observed that certain neurons would become activated if the treat was placed within arm’s reach. If the primates were provided with a croupier’s rake (usually used in casinos to collect up chips on gambling tables) then neurons representing nearby space that was previously out of reach would become activated once they gained experience using this simple tool to drag the food rewards towards them. The researchers even took it a step further by providing two rakes, one with a short handle and one with a long handle. Neurons representing space out of reach with the short handled rake became recruited into the “network of reachable space” when the macaques figured out they could use the short rake to pull the long rake closer and then use this to drag the treat from the opposite side of the table. Keep this in mind as you read the following account of bionic brain adaptation.

    Bionic Brain Adaptation?

    Version 2Nigel Ackland is a real life bionic man since a nasty industrial accident left his arm mangled and several subsequent botched surgeries led to his decision to have his right arm amputated from the elbow down. Shortly after this operation, he started to develop pain in his phantom limb. His NHS-issued “pincer” enabled him to gain some additional dexterity, but it did little to diminish the phantom sensation of his fingers and wrist locked into an extremely uncomfortable position. However once he started using a cutting-edge bionic arm, equipped with various pre-programmed five fingered hand movements operated via neuronal signals passing from his brain to the muscles at the end of his arm stump, not only did the phantom limb pain start getting better, but the phantom limb started extending gradually from his stump into the hand and fingers of his bionic arm.

    bebionicWhilst playing Jenga with him for my new series Nigel did something quite remarkable, triggering the memory of those Japanese macaques. Reaching with his bionic arm to grab an awkwardly positioned brick, from his side of the table he could only present the back of his hand to the block he was after. Unlike the rest of us mere mortals Nigel can rotate the hand of his bionic arm at the wrist by 360 degrees. To reach the brick in question he simply rotated his hand 180 degrees to face the other way, and then grabbed the block he was after with his bionic thumb, fore- and middle fingers in the usual way. It immediately occurred to me that people with bionic limbs – who can do things a normal human limb can not – may be awakening neurons in their parietal cortex that represent areas of space that have never before been recruited into the “network of reachable space” in the history of our species. Now that is very cool.

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, you can subscribe to my weekly science podcast (via itunes, via libsyn) and follow me on Twitter (@drjacklewis) for a daily dose of news articles describing the latest breakthroughs in brain science.

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  • What Does a Human Brain Really Look Like?

    human_brain_in_a_vatI saw my first real life human brain as a neuroscience undergraduate at the University of Nottingham.  My neuroanatomy professor dipped his gloved hands into a white plastic bucket from which pungent fumes had been emanating since we entered the dissection lab. Tugging on a piece of string looped around the corpus callosum (the thick bundle of fibres that connects left and right hemispheres) he lifted up an off-white brain into view. There were literally gasps of astonishment from the assembled teens. To witness the seat of all human perception, cognition and emotion in the flesh is quite an awesome experience. There was a second bucket that contained a far more gruesome anatomical specimen.  The right half of an old man’s entire head and neck! His face was perfectly preserved, right down to the stubble on his chin and the calm expression on his face. But flipping the specimen over revealed the inner face of his right brain hemisphere, the midline of his thalamus, brain stem and uppermost part of his spinal cord. Although this grotesque/incredible sight sent several of my colleagues bolting out of the room to visit the bathroom I was spellbound – this was precisely what I had hoped for when I opted to do a B.Sc. in neuroscience.


    I’ll never forget those two brains. I was thrilled to take the opportunity to hold and examine them, scrutinising the anatomical landmarks that I’d studied only in textbooks for so long. However the appearance of these brains was totally misleading. Soon after the donor had been declared dead all of the blood would had been flushed out of the brain’s blood vessels and then washed out with a preservative – the overpowering nasal insult that is formalin. I knew this was the procedure but I must admit to not realising how much the process transforms the appearance of this “fixed” brain in comparison to a fresh one.


    Fig3For many years the memory of handling those heavy, pallid brains, with texture not dissimilar to the “bouncy ball” toys of childhood, fundamentally influenced how I imagined the living brains of the several dozen people I scanned during my Ph.D. research using MRI. Indeed, the fact that structural MRI images of the brains in question are rendered in black and white only compounded this false impression. I spent many cumulative hours looking at such misleadingly coloured brains. To double check that my subjects were keeping still as instructed during the scan. To ensure that the realignment/morphing stage of preprocessing hadn’t introduced any glitches. To establish in which anatomical areas the significantly activated voxels might have resided. Ultimately the idea of brains as a greyscale entity was firmly embedded.


    Autopsy LiveIt wasn’t until Channel 4 decided to televise a live autopsy courtesy of Dr Death (or Professor Von Hagens as he is formally known) that I realised my mistake. Unlike a medical school autopsy, which usually use bodies that have been preserved by replacing bodily fluids with formaldehyde, this one was going to be using a fresh cadaver. I was literally gobsmacked when he sawed open the roof of the skull and a wobbly, pale pink, real, fresh human brain flopped out into his hands. It was more the texture of blancmange than firm rubber.


    The human brain is a truly amazing organ. Both in life and in death. If you’re curious, take a look at the footage below of a real, unpreserved, human brain fresh out of the skull, courtesy of the University of Utah.

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  • Infant Brain Development by Dr Jack Lewis

    The first signs of the grasping reflex are evident in the womb at 10 weeks after conception (towards the end of the 1st trimester)

    In the womb, brain development occurs at a startling pace. Seven weeks after conception the nervous system is sufficiently developed for the foetus to translate detection of gentle brushing of the nose and lips into a reflexive movement of its head away from the stimulus. Just ten weeks into gestation, i.e. towards the end of the first trimester, the first coordinated finger movements that constitute the grasp reflex are already kicking into action in response to stroking of the palm.

    At birth, all our different senses are somewhat intermingled, only differentiating out into distinct, separate senses through experience. Infants learn to distinguish sights from sounds, smells, tastes and touch by interacting with the environment. Synaesthesia – where stimulation of one sense results in perceptions in another (e.g. coloured sound) – is thought to result from incomplete separation of the senses.

    At birth a baby’s brain is developed enough to respond to different tastes, but their visual brains have to learn how to see from scratch

    Babies are not born with the ability to perceive the outside world as adults do. Right from birth a baby will pull different faces in response to salt, sour, bitter and salty tastes, yet most of the other senses are enormously underdeveloped. The senses must be honed interactively with the environment during early life. The more varied the experiences the more sophisticated their sensory perceptions will become, as will their ability to make sense of events encountered in the outside world, and ultimately the manner in which they engage with their environment.

    When a baby opens its eyes for the first time a critical period begins in which the neuronal wiring of the visual brain is gradually moulded to make sense of all that light. A newborn baby’s visual acuity is 1/30 that of an adult – it sees outlines but no detail. At 7 days old, babies show a preference for curved over straight lines, but cannot make out a face until the fourth week.

    Babies can hear what’s going on in the outside world from within the womb during the 3rd trimester

    Hearing, however, is a different matter. Sounds from the outside world can reach a baby’s ear whilst still in the womb allowing the auditory sense to be honed whilst still inside the womb. The theme tune to the Australian soap opera “Neighbours” was actually instrumental in revealing that babies can begin to hear and recognise specific sounds during the third trimester of pregnancy! An observant mother noticed that her foetus’s behaviour consistently changed as soon as the vocals kicked in every weekday.

    At 3 weeks of age, babies smile in response to the sound of their mother’s voice, whilst not until 6 weeks do they smile in response to the sight of a friendly human face.

    The skin is the human body’s largest organ. It contains many types of touch receptors, each cleverly designed to create various different sensations. Merkel cells, for instance, are sensitive to soft, delicate caresses. These are particularly abundant in the lips, tongue and fingertips, enabling extraction of texture, size and shape information.

    Infants have a tendancy to explore objects with their mouths first and fingertips later

    Infants have a tendancy to explore objects with their mouths first and fingertips later

    Two months after birth, infant brains see objects as targets to be looked at or reached for (they usually don’t successfully hit the target until 4 months), whilst they respond to humans socially – with smiles, vocalisation and, of critical importance, efforts to imitate their actions.

    In early infancy the visual brain is developed enough to define the edges of an object, providing the motor system with a target for the hand to reach for. At 2 months an infant typically uses one hand to investigate the object, usually bringing it to the mouth. By 4 months the infant can use two hands, one to hold it and the other to extract shape and texture information.

    By the age of 6 months if the parent shakes an object, the infant will tend to shake it too. If the parent bangs an object on the table, the infant will tend to copy this. Thus even at this young age the example set by the parent or caregiver is vital for the successful acquisition of skills.

    The more effectively an infant can coordinate their limbs to move around and manipulate objects the better they can explore the world to figure out how things work

    Development of an infant’s senses accelerates when it has acquired the ability to crawl around and explore the world by touch. Various institutions provide parents with a place to go where their infants and children can engage with and explore a rich variety of stimuli in a safe environment. Most of us will have been taken to play school, crèche or just the playground as kids, overtly to keep us occupied and tire us out, but implicitly so that we could explore a range of exciting sensory stimulations and ultimately learn to use and develop our senses and ability to make sense of “how the world works”. Such offerings have become gradually more sophisticated up until the point where institutions like The Little Gym provide not only the setting, but also trained guidance to parents and children alike that bears in mind the developmental milestones that kids should pass through at different life stages.

    The Little Gym uses knowledge of how infants and children learn to hone brain areas involved in sensory perception and movement coordination using activities tailored to the needs of each age group that help them to hit their developmental milestones

    Activities at The Little Gym are constructed for each age group in light of current knowldege gleaned from advances in developmental neuroscience and conducted in a non-competitive manner to ensure that children’s confidence in using their bodies is incrementally boosted after every session. I’ve visited The Little Gym in Chiswick, London and was very impressed to see how much thought had gone into tailoring activities to match the specific developmental level of each age group. Apparently they have no trouble convincing parents of the benefits of The Little Gym approach once they have got them to attend a session. When new parents compare their own children’s movements and sensory awareness to kids who’ve been attending The Little Gym for even just a few months, the advantages of having trainers directing the “play” activities according to a sound knowledge of child developmental trajectories are often abundantly obvious. One reason it is really good for kids to hit their developmental milestones as soon as they are able is that it creates a “can do” attitude that fosters positive engagement with the environment that gives them self-belief. And if you can instil a real sense of self-belief in a child then this will really help to shepherd themselves through the intellectual, social and emotional turmoil that they will almost inevitably encounter during adolescence.

    Don’t forget you can follow Dr Jack’s daily #braintweets at: www.twitter.com/DrJackLewis

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  • Crash course in brain anatomy anyone?

    The terminology associated with brain anatomy can seem intimidating to the uninitiated, but really there’s no need to be intimidated.

    A pair of cartoon rodents (Pinky and the Brain) managed to get their heads around it and so will you.

    Here’s their quick guided tour to the different parts of the human brain.

    It’s a shame they don’t really mention the role of each area they name.

    I guess that would have made making the lyrics rhyme even more complicated!

    To supplement their guide to neuroanatomy (what bit is where) I’ve given a quick overview of what each bit does in the order they’re covered in the cartoon:


    1) Neocortex – the whole large sheet of brain cells on the brain’s outer surface, folded up into the skull giving it the appearance of a walnut.

    2) Frontal lobe – the region of the neocortex at the front of the brain, behind the forehead, which is much larger in humans than our monkey cousins and enables us to do all those complex functions that other primates cannot.

    3) Brainstem – the part of the brain that ninja assasins aim for with their deadly chop where neck meets skull, it is involved in coordinating all the vital bodily functions that keep us alive e.g. breathing and heart rates.

    4) Hippocampus – key brain area at the core of the temporal lobes (which run horizontally down the sides of the head from the temple to behind the ears) which is heavily involved in not just creating, but also retrieving memories. It also creates new brain cells in response to exercise!

    5) Neural node – erm, I think they just needed something sciency sounding to rhyme with the other lines. The image THE BRAIN enlarges with the magnifying glass is a single brain cell complete with nucleus (which contains all the DNA) at it’s centre, the dendrites (receiving information from other brain cells) plus a single axon (along which electrical messages are sent to other brain cells).

    6) Right hemisphere – the left and right sides of the neocortex are separated by a fluid filled gap yet are connected by a massive bundle of neuronal connections called the corpus callosum that bridge the gap enabling left and right sides to send and receive information between them.

    7) Pons – All of the commands travelling from parts of the neocortex involved in motor control (i.e. body movements) pass through the pons which sits on top of the brainstem which is at the very top of the spinal cord through which the brain controls all the muscles of the body.

    8) Cortex visual, usually referred to as the visual cortex, sits right at the back of the brain. So the eyes quite literally detect light striking the retina, at the back of the eyeball, and send this information all the way to the back of the brain before we can see anything!

    9) Pineal, usually referred to as the pineal gland, is about the size of a grain of rice and produces melatonin which regulates the sleep/wake cycle. Daylight in the morning switches off melatonin production to make us feel awake, switching production back on in the evening so we can sleep.

    10) Cerebellum left and right, critical for balance and co-ordinated muscle contractions important for effective speech, walking, running, swimming and all sporting activities etc.

    11) Synapse – the gap between one neuron and the next. Electrical signals arriving at the end of one neuron releases tiny packets of brain chemicals that travel across the synapse, bind with special receptors on the other neuron to trigger or inhibit electrical signals its own electrical messages.

    12) Hypothalamus – the most important site of hormone production and release that powerfully regulates innumerable body and brain functions.

    13) Striate, a. k. a. striatum – enormously important subcortical brain area (deep in the brain not on the surface of the neocortex) involved in reward and motivation, planning and modulation of movements, named thus due to its stripy appearance.

    14) Axon fibres – as mentioned before this is the part of the brain cell that sends electrical messages to other brain cells.

    15) Matter grey, usually know as the famous Grey Matter. This is darker than the white matter as this is where all the synapses and cell bodies are. So it is in the grey matter that all the computational power of the brain is unleashed.

    16) Central tegmental pathway: the tegmentum is a part of the midbrain – which lies between the striatum and the brain stem. Activation of the ventral tegmental area, i.e. the “belly” of the tegmentum, causes the feelings of intense pleasure when people eat, drink, have sex or take drugs.

    17) Temporal lobe – the upper surface of the temporal lobes is the part of the brain we hear with.

    18) White core matter, usually referred to as White Matter, consists of millions and millions of axonal fibres that ferrying electrical signals from one brain area to the next.

    19) Forebrain – we’ve done that already

    20) Skull – the bone in which our brain is cradled

    21) Central fissure – the name for the fluid filled gap described earlier which separates the left and right hemispheres

    22) Cord spinal, usually known as the spinal cord, through which axons pass sending messages from brain to body and body to brain.

    23) Parietal – one of the lobes of the neocortex – involved in spatial awareness, focusing attention and mathematical calculations.

    24) Pia mater – is the innermost of the three brain sacks (or meninges) which cushion and protect the brain.

    25) Meningeal vein – blood vessels taking waste materials away from the outer parts of the neocortex.

    26) Medulla oblongata – lower part of the brain stem, also involved in triggering reflexes like vomiting, sneezing, coughing etc.

    27) Lobe limbic – usually known as limbic system, deep inside brain beneath the temporal lobes, involved in generating emotions.

    28) Microelectrodes – there is not a microelectrode in sight so just ignore that lyric!

    In addition to these monthly brain posts you can follow me on Twitter for my thrice daily #braintweet.

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