Thursday, 1 December 2011

Why Jon Driver was an inspiration to me

Jon Driver studied Experimental Psychology at Oxford before taking up a University Lectureship at Cambridge.  Within eight years of obtaining his DPhil doctoral degree he was a Professor at Birkbeck, and from 1998 a Professor at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (ICN), one of the world’s leading centres of research into the brain basis of cognition.  He was Director of the ICN from 2004-2009, before being one of a small handful of researchers from all across the sciences to be selected for a prestigious Royal Society Anniversary Research Professorship in 2009.  He died this week, tragically young at the age of 49, leaving a young family.

I never worked with Jon directly, and wouldn’t say that I knew him particularly well.  More comprehensive and better informed assessments of his life and career will no doubt be found elsewhere.  However, the times I did spend with Jon were sufficient to leave a lasting impression on me, which is what I wanted to reflect on in these brief thoughts.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The future of cognitive neuroscience

I have previously written about how I think that cognitive neuroscience as a scientific discipline (and I know that this is not a universally held view) has largely moved on from publishing studies demonstrating the neural correlates of “x”, where x might be behaviours as diverse as maternal love, urinating, or thinking about god.  There are still a few of these sorts of studies published each year, and because the public are, it seems, fascinated by stories about blobs on brains, the media portrayal of cognitive neuroscience tends to focus on such findings.

Some blobs on a brain
This is all very entertaining if you like your science presented to you in a breakfast TV sofa sort of way.  However, the downside is that people who are not regular readers of the fMRI research literature think that the media portrayal of cognitive neuroscience is an accurate representation of the field.  In fact, I would argue, this is far from the case.  In my experience of working in cognitive neuroscience for the last decade or more, most researchers I have encountered are not interested in so-called “blobology”.  Instead, they work very hard each day carefully designing theoretically motivated experiments using cognitive neuroscience techniques to produce empirical data that can be used to differentiate between cognitive theories about how functions like memory, language, vision, attention, and so on, might operate.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Update on exercise and memory story

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post in response to a “pre-arranged” submission by Kirk Erickson and colleagues to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which purported to find evidence that moderate exercise leads to substantial improvements in memory. The article in question received a great deal of media attention, with big claims being made that older adults, who tend to be worried about declining memory abilities, might be able to hold off the effects of old age on memory with a simple exercise regime.

Unfortunately, when the data were looked at more closely, it was clear that the picture was more complicated. For one thing, although the experimental group that performed exercise for one year did show a 2.3% increase in memory score, a control group who did not perform the exercise showed a 3.7% increase over the same period. In other words, the exercise group did not show any increase in memory performance relative to the control group.

Friday, 1 April 2011

State-dependent memory: Remembering Heather Graham's phone number

A few days ago I gave a talk at the Cambridge Memory Film Festival, introducing some of the scientific themes raised in the Hollywood comedy, The Hangover, starring Bradley Cooper and Heather Graham.  Here's a brief summary.

“Why is there a tiger in the bathroom?”
The basic idea of the film is that Doug and a group of his best friends are in Las Vegas drunkenly celebrating the fact that he is soon to be married.  The next morning, Doug’s friends wake up in their hotel suite with no memory of the previous night, and soon realise that Doug is missing.  Furthermore, there is a baby in the wardrobe, a tiger in the bathroom, and a chicken is wandering around the suite.  Hilarious consequences ensue.

The memory-impairing effects of alcohol are a staple topic for light-hearted treatment in popular culture, probably because most people can relate to the notion of waking up after a night on the tiles, not entirely sure about their recollection of everything that transpired.  In psychology, this phenomenon is termed state-dependent memory.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Update on neuroscience funding

I wrote last week about a series of recent funding body announcements that have left UK scientists (especially those in the neurosciences, but many others too) feeling very worried about the future.  For example, in addition to the recent closure of a number of pharmaceutical company neuroscience research facilities, a previously major funder of basic cognitive neuroscience research, the BBSRC, announced it was re-prioritising its funding away from neuroscience.  Even more concerning for the future of the field, several funding schemes aimed particularly at early-career researchers have recently been overhauled in a manner that, I argued, seemed to significantly reduce the ability of a new researcher to establish a neuroscience research group.

Even if some of the reports turn out not to reflect accurately the changes that have been made, these recent developments have caused a great deal of concern amongst researchers.  As a result, it has been particularly welcome to see announcements and comments in the last few days from another major research council whose remit includes neuroscience, the MRC.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Is there a cognitive neuroscience funding crisis?

When I started my lectureship (a position equivalent to assistant professor in the US system) way back in the good old days of 2007, one of the first things I had to think about was how to begin building a research group.  My research interests are in understanding human memory using cognitive neuroscience techniques such as neuropsychology (studying the way memory is disrupted following brain damage or dementia) and neuroimaging (studying the brain areas that are particularly active while remembering).  We are seeking a greater understanding of the way in which different memory processes are organised in the brain, as a means to determine how these processes might be preserved or impaired in neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Cognitive neuroscience often generates great excitement in the media and the public in general.  This is apparent most obviously in the genuine fascination people have with seeing where in the brain “lights up” during a particular kind of behaviour.  Perhaps somewhat less evident in the media, but still captivating to many who hear about it, are the many strange and wonderful examples of altered behaviour following brain injury or stroke.  Indeed, it was through hearing vivid descriptions of neuropsychological behaviours from an inspirational undergraduate lecturer that I became hooked on the area as a student.  Another reason perhaps for the great interest in cognitive neuroscience in this country is that the UK is very good at it.  Considering the disparities in funding and resources compared with the US, for example, the UK is right up there among the world leaders in the field no matter which measure you choose.  Just as one example, two of the top five (and three of the top ten) most highly cited scientists in the field work in the UK

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Exercise may be good for you, but it doesn’t boost your memory

“Moderate exercise such as walking boosts memory power” claims the BBC.

“Exercise in middle age can improve your memory” says the Daily Mail.

“Older adults improve memory through exercise” reports CNN.

“Want to improve your memory? Take a walk” invites Time.

These are just some of the many headlines today resulting from the publication of a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) entitled “Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory”, by Kirk Erickson from the University of Pittsburgh and colleagues from the University of Illinois. You can access the abstract of the article here, although you may need to pay to read the whole paper.

Monday, 24 January 2011

What we know from science about how to pass your exams

Whether you’re cramming your specialist subject for an appearance on Mastermind, or trying frantically to learn lecture material for an impending exam, there is abundant evidence from cognitive psychology of some strategies that might help.

For many years, researchers considered that the traditional method of simply repeating information over and over to yourself, while improving long-term memory for the information to some degree, was far less effective than so-called “elaborative” processing, which involves relating the to-be-remembered information to other associated facts and previous knowledge. However, new research published this week in Science by Jeffrey Karpicke and colleagues indicates that an even more successful strategy can be to repeatedly test yourself on the information.