Friday, 23 October 2009

Week 3

The third week in, and things are getting tougher. On the plus side, though, certain things are getting more interesting.

For example, we had a lecture explaining how an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner is able to capture such detailed images of the brain. Would you like to know how it works?

Essentially, an MRI scanner is a tube containing a very strong magnetic field, thousands of times stronger than the Earth’s gravitational pull. This field is kept constant, so is absolutely uniform at every point within the scanner.

The protons inside the head are all busy jiggling around all over the place, randomly veering around at different angles, but once inside the scanner they all begin to align, with every proton facing the exact same direction, due to the power of the huge magnetic force generated by the machine.

The operator can then send a strong sudden magnetic pulse through the scanner, which flips every single proton in the scanner chamber to one side. To help you imagine this, picture all the protons facing north, and then suddenly being knocked to face east (of course this is not how it happens, but it can be easily visualised).

Now, this is the clever bit. The protons will then flip back to align with ‘north’, only in every different type of tissue this process will take slightly different amounts of time. So, bone, grey matter, white matter, even oxygenated and lesser oxygenated blood, each will take a slightly different time for their protons to recover from the knock in order to face ‘north’.

This different timing for each type of tissue is crucial, as the scanner can keep a record of how long each proton took to recover, and this will effect whether a light or dark patch appears on the screen, giving us a perfect image of the skull, brain and surrounding tissue.

Amazingly, the machine can do this in 3d, so you can then work through sections of the brain as if you were travelling through the body.

It is quite an amazing procedure, and if you are interested you can see more here

On an unrelated note, I had my first bit of coursework due in yesterday, a particularly nasty statistics worksheet. The night before it was to be handed in I had got it all finished, printed off, done and dusted. My first early night in ages, I was actually in bed by 11 which is unheard of.

12:30 a.m, I get a phonecall. It is Melissa, a girl on my course, who I collaborated with on the work. She tells me there was an error in our data, meaning all our calculations were wrong. So, at one in the morning I had no choice but to rewrite the bloody thing from scratch, redoing all my calculations, graphs and tables. I got to bed some time after 4 a.m, a bit of sleep, and handed it in an ten the next morning.


Sunday, 18 October 2009

The course enters the real world.

To my left-hand side sits a sheet of paper entitled 'Advanced Quantitative Methods - Assessed Coursework: Worksheet 1'.

To my right-hand side sits a pile of my old undergraduate study aids, module guides, notes and help sheets.

Directly in front of me sits my laptop and, next to that, three textbooks, one intimidatingly large yet deceptively simple, the other two smaller and more advanced.

What do these myriad documents have in common? If I were to hazard a guess I should suggest that they were faxed to me direct from Hades by Satan himself, written in his own blood and printed on the compacted bones of history's greatest tyrants. But in reality the truth is far more sinister. For what links these formidable documents is a word, one single word, that strikes fear into the hearts of countless generations of poor psychology students.


Or maybe it's just me. See, I have always struggled with numbers. Words, on the other hand, have always come naturally to me, flowing from my lips (or as is increasingly the case, fingertips) without any kind of difficulty, but numbers, with their logical structure and stubborn insistence on being 'right or wrong' make me want to curl up into a little ball and cease to function.

Anyway, this was not supposed to be a moaning entry about the stats coursework I am currently writing. All you really need to know is that I looked at the questions, started to panic, stopped panicking and all of a sudden it all started to come back to me, albeit in a trickle rather than a flood.

No, my real intention for this entry was not to moan about statistics, but to rejoice in how wonderful Thursday was. Every other Thursday, as part of our 'lesion approaches' module, we are invited over to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery for a real life case presentation.

What this entailed (although obviously I can't be specific, in the interest of the confidentiality of the patient) was a short talk from some of the senior doctors about a specific patient, how their brain has been injured and how the injury has affected the patient. The patient was then brought in and took part in a short mock examination whereby the doctor tested various aspects of cognitive function with a series of standardised tests. We were then given the opportunity to ask the patient questions about their injury and subsequent experiences. The patient then left and we had a discussion about the case and the opportunity to ask the doctor any questions about the case.

It was absolutely fascinating, and really brought this MSc course crashing into the real world. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the patient at coming in to discuss such a personal and traumatic experience, and I feel that these case presentations will be an incredibly valuable part of the course.

Oh well, that is quite enough enthusiasm for one entry. I must get back to the utter joy of these statistical calculations.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Start of week 2.

Week two began once again with Structure and Measurement of the Brain, delivered by Marty Sereno, who I hadn’t quite appreciated until now is one of the world leading researchers in his field. Anyone interested can see him at work below.

The topic this week focused on the development of the brain in the womb, with a detailed explanation of how a small cluster of cells begin to slowly divide and form the beginnings of the spine, the eyes and gradually folds over on itself to take shape as the infant brain. This was fascinating, and I was really impressed by Marty’s knowledge, with frequent deviations to discuss the brains of other mammals and assorted creatures of all different sizes.

He then went on to discuss the visual system, and how surprisingly complex it is. We have no idea quite how much our brain needs to do in order to make sense of the world around us. For example, what we perceive as a single field of vision is actually processed in several different parts of the brain, such as an area for the periphery, an area for our immediate focus etc. These different maps are then seamlessly patched together in order that they be perceived as one single image. This on top of flipping the image (due to the convex shape of the retina), and creating a 3D image of the world via depth perception, all happening simultaneously without us knowing it. He also discussed the limitations of our knowledge of just how this is done, with particular reference to objects moving across our field of vision.

We had an extended lecture with Marty, 3 hours rather than the usual 2. He actually managed to maintain my full and undivided attention for almost the full 3 hours, until that is he started talking about areas of the visual cortex known as (I kid you not) ‘blobs’. This was about the point when both my interest and understanding trailed off, the final straw being the point that the areas between the ‘blobs’ are known as ‘interblobs’. Frankly if scientists can’t be bothered to name these things properly, I can’t be bothered to understand.

The reading Marty set us this week is much more accessible too. One bit I found particularly interesting is how the brain of a tennis player will come to perceive his or her racquet as an extension of their arm, increasing it’s mental map of their immediate surroundings to compensate for this increased ‘body shape’.

This follows research by Iriki et al (1996) on monkey using sticks as primitive tools, and the science is explained thusly:

“The visual receptive fields expand when the monkey uses the rake as an extension of its hand, while the somatosensory receptive fields are unchanged. This is interpreted as a change in the body image: The enlargement of the visual receptive field reflects the neural correlate of a hand representation that now incorporates the tool. The visual receptive fields return to their original size within a few minutes after tool use is discontinued. They do not expand at all if the monkey simply holds the rake without intending to use it. These rapid changes in visual receptive field size indicate that the neural connections that allow for the expansion must be in place all along.”

(Colby, C.L. and M.E. Goldberg (1999) Space and attention in parietal cortex. Annual Review of Neurosciences 22:319-349).

Anyway, as challenging as this module is I feel it may end up being a very rewarding one, and perhaps even a personal favourite, as long as I can keep up with the reading material, and maintain the pretence of understanding it.

The afternoon talk was delivered by a guest lecturer who gave a talk on Autism and Williams syndrome, both examples of what can happen when certain parts of the brain don’t function as they should. Frustratingly, all she did was read out her lecture slides without any elaboration, meaning she may as well have just emailed us all and we could have read the bloody things in 20 minutes. It didn’t help that she pitched the thing at GCSE to A-level standard, not far above the quality of science you would expect on ‘loose women’. And yes, I am fully aware that last week I was complaining about things being too hard, only to complain this week that it is too easy.

But then I’m a fussy little so-and-so.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Week one in review.

As the first week of fifty passes, it seems appropriate to stop and reflect on the last five days. Granted, it wasn't technically the first week (we had a week of introductory talks, induction sessions and general 'getting to know people' type events last week) but it was the first week of teaching, and my first class on Monday morning left me with a heavy heart.

Now, much had been made by the lecture staff about the wide variety of backgrounds and experiences we, the students, had prior to the course. For some this is their second or third masters, but for the majority it is their first postgraduate qualification. Many, like me, graduated with a BSc or BA in Psychology, but there is also a wealth of other talent on board, from computer science students to those who studied linguistics. Some studied neuroscience, and others had a more biomedical background.

Therefore one would hope that the lecture staff would really start with the basics, and build up to more complex and specialist information. Sadly not. My main complaint about Tuesday morning is that Marty Sereno, who teaches 'Structure and Measurement of the Brain' (which encompasses Neuroanatomy, Neurophysiology, and Neuroimaging Physics)seemed to assume we were all already familiar with pretty advanced maths, physics and chemistry concepts, and wasted no time in explaining much of the terminology he employed. For poor old me, who hasn't done any maths or real science in the last decade (not since the last century, in fact) this was a bit of a problem.

This was exacerbated by the fact that, rather than starting at the beginning, Marty seemed to deliver the points of his lecture in a bizarre mixed up order of concepts, often explaining how a process works far before explaining what the process actually is and does. Passionate he certainly is, and his knowledge seemed superb. But when I asked a question (basically 'what on earth are you talking about') he merely stated he would come back to my question, and then promptly forgot.

Luckily when I went home and began to plough through the reading things started to make sense. I now have a basic understanding of the signalling processes employed by neurons (or brain cells), which is far too dull to even bother explaining here, but in very simple terms it has to do with flipping the balance of positive and negatively charged ions inside and outside the cell wall to create a sudden electrical charge which then fires along to the next brain cell to convey the signal. Simple, and it only took a few hours of reading.

The rest of Tuesday was pretty much administrative stuff, learning about the departmental intranet and IT services and a little information about our major project for the course. We also discussed applying for PhD funding, which needs to be done very soon indeed. This presents me with a bit of a problem, as a large part of my reason for doing this course is that I don't yet know what field I want to go into for my PhD, and so was hoping that the masters would give me extra knowledge of all aspects of neuroscience. So it came as a bit of a shock to learn that I would need to apply for funding within the first month of the course. Arse.

By the time my second day of lectures came around, I was still worrying about my experience of Mondays class. Surely it couldn't all be this hard? If week one was going to be that complex then what the hell was week ten, twenty or fifty going to be like?

Luckily, I was presently surprised by Thursday, as much of it was very basic revision of the statistical concepts I had learnt at undergraduate level. I would say I was already familiar with about 90% of what was discussed in out first 'Advanced Quantitative Methods' class, and looking over the timetable for the coming months most of this module does seem to build on concepts with which I am already familiar. I had been dreading statistics, but I left the class feeling very, very relieved.

Which brings me on to my final class of the week, 'Lesion approaches'. This class covers what we can learn about the brain by examining what effect is observed when a specific area of the brain is damaged, and the impairments it causes. I have a feeling this may become a personal favourite of mine, and although week one was very basic and introductory in tone, it did not disappoint.

So there you have it, week one. Sorry there wasn't much to report, but due to the nature of these things this first week was mostly spend getting to know the staff, finding out where we needed to be for each class and discussing what we will be learning over the next 12 months.

I would imagine that as of Monday, the exciting stuff starts! But don't worry, I will be here to keep you posted!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The joys of reading

Good lord, it appears I am going to spend 23 hours a day for the next 12 months solidly reading.

I may have hit a snag in my plan, which at first seemed simple. I would take what I have learnt on the course and post it in an informative, witty and simple format whereby anybody could understand and appreciate the wonders of the brain.

As I said, that was the plan. Cast your eyes over this little lot:


Now, I appreciate that those are all real words, and many of them may even appear in the English language. Just, not all at once and certainly not in that order.

That is one page out of sixty that make up this article.

For this particular module, we have been given three articles to read this week. Three core articles, and then a series of other 'suggested readings'.

I have four modules running simultaneously at any one time, each with their own prescribed reading list.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


After what has felt at times like the longest of all summers, October has arrived, and with it my opportunity to embark upon a Master of Science degree.

This has been more than a little daunting, and I must admit that to many it is probably also pretty surprising (with good reason).

Here is, then, a little background information about me, and I promise that after this entry I will stick to detailing my experiences of the course, the field of cognitive neuroscience, and try and express what I am learning in easily digestible chunks. But for now, the autobiography commences:

When I was at school I was always what could be considered an 'under-performer'. Although many teachers over the years noted that I was pretty bright, this observation was almost universally followed up with an immediate 'but'. Typically my school reports would highlight the fact that if a subject did not capture my imagination I just wouldn't bother. Conversely, if it did capture my over-active imagination then I would invariably achieve very highly. In an ideal world this should not present a problem, but god knows a good teacher is hard to find, let alone one who will infuse each and every lesson with a spark of excitement and passion, meaning that more often than not my work failed to live up to my potential.

Not that I should attempt to absolve myself of blame absolutely, more often than not I was more than happy to let myself coast, often only expelling the bare minimum effort needed to scrape by with a moderately acceptable grade. Consequently I did just fine. Nothing great, but enough to ensure that the only way in which my memory would live on in my old school will be in the tales passed down the years about my childish and troublesome, albeit somewhat amusing behaviour (details about which are probably best left for another forum).

Anyway, I left school as the nineties turned into the naughties, and after a very uneventful gap year I enrolled, hated, and subsequently dropped out of a drama degree, all within the space of a term. While away I had become quite depressed which put me off academia for quite some time. This left a substantial gulf in my life, which I filled with a job working in a bar, and I was soon climbing up the rungs of a career ladder I had no real desire to be climbing, with promotion to bar supervisor and the offer of a place on a management training scheme. Four years passed, stuck serving the same old drinks behind the same old bar to the same old idiots, and it was becoming depressingly clear that I had no idea what to do next.

The trouble with bar work is it does not afford you much time to research career prospects - particularly when you have none. The combination of long hours (15 hour shifts, anyone?) late finishes and working all weekend meant I had little time to consider my options, let alone draw up a strategy for how to act on them. So I took some time out. I saved up as much money as I could muster and jetted off to New York City. For 3 months.

Finally, a chance to clear my mind of distractions, and to give some real thought as to what I would enjoy doing, and to what I would be particularly skilled at doing (oh, and to have some much needed fun in one of the best cities in the world!).

The result (drum roll please.....) I decided I wanted to become a hypnotherapist. Only I didn't, I just didn't yet know that I did not want it.

Anyway, to cut what was supposed to have been a short story at least relatively short, logic dictated that a psychology degree would be a good springboard for such an aspiration, and so I picked a London university at random, ending up at St Mary's University College in Twickenham.

To be fair to St Mary's, it was a very small campus, and therefore had very limited facilities. The psychology department was great, with some wonderful academic staff, but looking back the university itself wasn't great, and I didn't really fit in to university life on a campus that was primarily sports based. But, as you know by now, I didn't have the best set of A-levels, so I just had to work bloody hard to make up for all those years of slacking, and emerged in the summer of 2008 with a first class honours degree.

As you will know, the summer of 2008 also coincided with the start of a global recession, which rather buggered my employment prospects, but after six months on unemployment benefit I took a job in a medium-secure psychiatric hospital, giving me some great entry level clinical experience. Some good news, finally! Good news which was followed by some further good news, Goldsmiths College wanted me for their Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience MSc! As great as this sounded, I had my sights set on UCL, and the amazing course they had to offer.

The months rolled by and UCL remained silent, while I remained at the psychiatric hospital (still as staff, I might add) until, eventually, I was accepted onto my dream course.

And we arrive back at the never-ending summer, which has now ended. I am here. Studying at one of the top 5 universities in the country, and one of the top 10 in the world. On one of the top 3 neuroscience courses on the planet. Perhaps now you can see why I started off by saying I was a little daunted by the whole experience.

Now the history is out of the way, I can begin the exciting stuff, the reason I am here in the first place. Cognitive Neuroscience. The biological underpinnings of mental activity. Or something like that, at any rate. I will endeavour to keep this blog updated with my experiences over the next 12 months, and try to translate what I have learnt (well, the interesting bits at any rate) into plain English.

And I hope that you will enjoy reading it.