Pint of Science Edinburgh 2017: Is this the real life?

The expectations for “Is this the real life?” were high – it was the first sold out event for Pint of Science 2017 in Edinburgh. With a fascinating set of speakers and an interactive neuroscience & arts display by Edinburgh FUSION, the event fully lived up to its expectations.

The first talk of the night was given by Dr David Carmel from the School of Psychology, Philosophy and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. His talk set the tone for the evening: the fascinating process of perception and how our brains process visual information in order to have an idea of what is going on the outside world. Dr Carmel, being no stranger to science communication and public engagement, quickly caught the audience’s attention with his infectious enthusiasm.

“An important thing to understand about visual perception is that we actually see with our brains, not our eyes”, Dr Carmel explained. He demonstrated this using illusions such as the infamous “dress”: although the dress is actually black and blue, it can also appear to be gold and white, and the colour we perceive it in sometimes switches. We also looked at so-called bi-stable images, which can be either one thing or the other – a famous one is the old woman versus young woman, or the duck versus rabbit. Bi-stable images can also be perceived to move into one direction or the other. Looking at these moving bi-stable images, we slowly made the transition to Dr Carmel’s research: he is interested in how the brain processes visual information and how the brain decides what we perceive.

He uses TMS – transcranial magnetic stimulation – to “zap” specific areas in the brain to understand their role in perception. TMS uses strong currents – and while these are insulated, the magnetic field generated by the currents can influence neuronal function if placed above a certain region of the brain. And before you begin to worry – the effects of TMS are only temporary! With this method, he and a collaborator found two different but adjacent regions in the brain that do opposite things in terms of perception of bi-stable images: one favours the retention of the current image, whereas the other one favours a switch to the other possible perception. A few interesting questions arose in the audience after Dr Carmel’s presentation. My favourite one was: do we ever actually see “reality? And the answer was: no. What we see and perceive is what our sensory organs have evolved to register, and the reality we experience is in fact heavily filtered by our brains.

The next talk followed on from how our brain filters the reality we perceive, and what happens when this goes awry: schizophrenia. Dr Mandy Johnstone from the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences explained how she uses organoids to study brain changes in schizophrenia. Organoids are mini-organs grown in the lab from stem cells – theoretically they can be grown of almost any organ, but for her purpose she obviously uses mini brains. Brain organoids grow to be remarkably similar to actual brains in terms of structure, cellular function and connectivity. They can be exploited to study exactly what goes wrong in schizophrenia, by growing these mini brains using stem cells taken from schizophrenia patients. In addition, organoids provide a great replacement for animal research and can be used for drug screens to find novel therapeutic targets for schizophrenia. An attentive person in the audience pointed out that organoids do not take the environment into account. This is a limitation that has to be acknowledged, as it still remains elusive whether schizophrenia is determined more by nature or nurture – however, no disease model is perfect (yet).

The break in between talks was filled by interactive arts displays provided by Edinburgh FUSION, a group dedicated to combining arts and neuroscience. These were well-received, and included a “suggestion” box with a twist (it was actually a shredder, and somehow I got the feeling that this is what happens to most suggestions anywhere). To sum up, this final Pint of Science event of the Beautiful Mind theme in Edinburgh was an informative, entertaining and diverse evening, and it made me see the world with different eyes – or should that be a different brain?

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