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Bristol Neuroscience Research Showcase, 13 January 2022

14 January 2022

Learn about the Bristol Neuroscience Research Network’s half-day showcase which served to welcome new neuroscience research staff at the University of Bristol. The event comprised a series of presentations from: Bristol Medical School; School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience; and School of Psychological Science recruits, and two external keynote speakers: Loren Frank (UCSF) and Essi Viding (UCL). Over 120 people registered for the event on 13 January 2022, from undergraduate students straight through to senior staff. The aims of the event included introducing ideas for future research or potential collaborations, expanding understanding of the many different aspects of neuroscience, and getting to know some of the newer members of staff from across the University of Bristol and welcoming them to the wider community.

‌The Network is supported by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute and we thank them for the financial support required to run the event.

Presentation summaries in order of appearance:

Karla Holmboe (Lecturer, School of Psychological Science): Neural correlates of inhibitory control in infancy. Executive functions are core cognitive functions that allow us to control our behaviour and make adaptive decisions in everyday life. These functions are often conceptualised as three partially separate, but also overlapping, functions: Inhibitory control (to overcome a habitual response when it is no longer useful or adaptive and the ability to stop ourselves from doing something); Working memory (keeping information in mind while manipulating that info or doing something with it; for example, to solve a problem or achieve a goal); and Cognitive flexibility (switching between thoughts and actions, and multi-tasking). The focus of much of Karla’s research is on how we can best measure executive functions in babies and toddlers. There aren’t many tasks suitable for assessing these skills in children under 3 years, so her most recent work involves the development of a set of executive function tasks specifically for this age group. Please note Karla’s powerpoint did not record, if you would like to see it please contact the organiser.

James Armstrong (UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, Bristol Medical School: Translational Health Sciences): Organoid bioengineering: Building complex cell models of the human brain. James is leading a study into brain organoids – tiny, self-organised three-dimensional tissues that are derived from stem cells, which have been used to model human brain development and neurological conditions. His project seeks to use new bioengineering tools to produce organoids with an asymmetry that matches the developing human brain. These organoids will provide new opportunities to study many serious neurological conditions, while the bioengineering tools will be tested in other organoids, such as those that model the pancreas or endometrium.

Emma Cahill (Lecturer, School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience): Individual differences of learning and memory for threat detection in rats. Emma explores how we could design valid models of anxiety symptoms using rodents. She does this by establishing tasks and refining behavioural readouts, and developing theoretical models of the control of selection of a defensive behaviour. Fear and anxiety are responses to an actual or perceived threat, and individual differences can affect an ability to adapt, or a vulnerability to pathology. For example, the most hypervigilant individuals will over-react to an elusive threat cue; studying these will help us understand these processes better. Please note Emma’s powerpoint did not record, if you would like to see it please contact the organiser.

Michael Banissy (Head of School of Psychological Science): How do we share the experiences of others? Understanding and modulating empathy in humans. Empathy is the capacity to share the experiences of other people. The interplay between self-other control and vicarious perception is highlighted to be a critical part of empathy across various models (including humans). For instance, if we see someone in pain, we have to firstly know that they are in pain and not us (self-other distinction), to co-represent we must then boost their representation and inhibit our own (self-other switching focused on the other while inhibiting the self), however if we co-represent too much we may experience too much personal distress so we also need to be able inhibit the other (self-other switching focused on the self while inhibiting the other) in order to regulate our vicarious perception of the other person’s state. Training people to control self-other representations will allow them to feel less personal distress while maintaining levels of empathy; this is an essential skill for many professions where high personal distress and high empathic concern can lead to burnout.

Essi Viding (Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, UCL): Children and young people’s mental health: Making the case for the study of the ‘embedded brain’. We need to do better at harnessing advances at multiple levels of analyses to improve prevention and treatment of mental health problems. A deeper understanding of how biology and environment shape each other essential for this endeavour. Essi used the example of conduct problems (such as anti-social behaviour) to illustrate the challenges. Evidence has shown that the brain not just a ‘receiver’, but also a ‘creator’ of environments, and genetic and environmental factors calibrate how the brain processes information and have an impact on socialisation and social interactions. New approaches will significantly contribute to children and young people’s mental health research.

Just one afternoon has highlighted links we can already draw between this fantastic cohort of new recruits – Matt Jones, Bristol Neuroscience Director

Valentina Mosienko (MRC Fellow and Proleptic Lecturer, School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience): Beyond serotonin: astrocyte mechanisms in stress response. Depression is the most common mental health disorder 300 million affected worldwide; 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 10 children in the UK suffer from depression, and 6,000 suicides per year are attributable to the illness. Antidepressants are commonly prescribed to address symptoms of depression but are only effective in one third of patients. Valentina’s work will explore the underlying mechanisms that drive the onset of depressive symptoms through the study of astrocytes (a type of brain cell) which are involved in the brain’s stress response and depression, and whether their morphology is regulated by brain serotonin. Using novel experimental approaches, her research will test the link between lactate and depression to discover how lactate contributes to the regulation of mood. The results will pave the way towards developing new effective antidepressant treatments with the ultimate aim to reduce the burden to relatives, carers and society and more importantly alleviate everyday suffering in patients.

Edwin Dalmaijer (Lecturer, School of Psychological Science): When the gut steers the eyes: Pharmacological normalisation of gastric state reduces disgust avoidance. Disgust is a useful basic emotion and is an adaptive response to “yucky” things such as spiders or bodily fluids, but it can harm psychological wellbeing. Oculomotor methods (noting where your eyes fall when you are looking at something) have been used to measure a person’s response to disgust-neutral stimulus pairs - for example, an image of multi-coloured buttons paired with an image of poo. Results show that disgust inspires non-habituating avoidance for repetitions of the exact same stimuli - meaning that people would rather look at the buttons than the poo when faced with the option more than once. Rewarding disgust avoidance might work once, but it immediately resurfaces once the incentive is gone. And disgust avoidance is a uniquely visceral response, in that is touches the heart, mind and gut. Oculomotor avoidance reduces when the gastric state is normalised, but only when paired with encouraged exposure, and the gut impacts cognition.

Petra Fischer (Lecturer, School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience): Controlling if and how to move: The translational potential of studying neural synchronization phenomena in movement disorders. Petra’s work focusses on Parkinson’s disease and dystonia, identifying patterns of brain activity which are linked to symptoms of these diseases, and informing neurostimulation therapies to improve symptoms in a targeted fashion. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) involves the implantation of electrodes within the brain which electrical impulses that regulate abnormal impulses or affect certain cells and chemicals within the brain. While it does provide results, the method can cause deterioration of speech and walking abilities and can exacerbate impulsivity. Using adapting DBS, i.e. only stimulating when needed, is one option, but gait symptoms and non-motor symptoms are still poorly managed. Looking at patterns of brain activity during walking shows that beta activity (a type of brain wave generated when the brain is aroused and actively engaged in mental activities) they noticed that stepping movements are accompanied by rhythmic modulation of beta activity. This rhythmic DBS pattern significantly entrained patients stepping rhythm and improved gait control, but more work into the potential clinical benefits of this is needed.  

Konstantinos Tsetsos (Senior Lecturer, School of Psychological Science): Computational and neural mechanisms of decision irrationality. Konstantinos leads the Irrationality Lab, whose research aims to understand how humans process information when making decisions, especially when these deviate from the normative standards. Preference reversal is a change in the relative frequency by which one option is favoured over another in behavioural experiments; for example, when given the option of a tea or an espresso, you choose tea. However, when given the option of tea, espresso, or decaf espresso, you choose the decaf espresso. Is this rational behaviour? Preference reversals typically occur due to the presence or absence of irrelevant alternatives (a decaf espresso) or the framing of the decision problem (select vs. reject). From a decision-theoretic viewpoint preference reversals are hallmarks of decision irrationality. Preference reversals have been well documented but not fully understood at the mechanistic level. His lab aspires to do so at various levels (computational, algorithmic, neural) and to provide a neurophysiologically-grounded theory of human decision-making; his team study preference reversals using psychophysics and neuroimaging which allow them to trace the flow of decision-related information, from the sensory input to the motor output.

Loren Frank (Professor, Kavli Institute for Fundamental Neuroscience, University of California at San Francisco): Memories and mental stimulation. Loren’s research focusses on the circuitry of the hippocampus and the comparison of patterns of activity across regions within the hippocampus and across hippocampal cortical networks; similarities and differences among the patterns help identify the transformations that occur when the brain learns, remembers and decides. Using rat models to simulate human behaviour, Loren and his team seek to understand how the processes within these brain structures which play an essential role in an animal's abilities to learn about and remember complex associations, for example, setting a task where the animal must learn and remember information about a set of spatial cues in order to navigate through an environment. Although the hippocampus is essential for spatial learning, storing and retrieving new information requires complex networks spread throughout the brain. Similarly, the hippocampus is critical for memory retrieval for a period after learning: cortical inputs are thought to trigger a retrieval event wherein the hippocampus coordinates the reactivation of patterns across the brain. Loren’s team are examining activity in the hippocampus and in downstream areas to understand how these events are triggered and how they contribute to the computations underlying decision-making.

Further information

Watch the recording of the event on YouTube:

Contact Catherine Brown if you have any questions on the event. 

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