When the brains of brain brains get together

Well, who’s been a busy little bunny? That’s right: ME 🙂

Where have I been?


What do you mean, it looks like a clinic? Well it’s not. It’s the Clinical Neuroscience Centre! Oh yes.

I have been at the British Neuropsychological Society (BNS)’s autumn conference. Dr Ashok Jansari is the BNS’s new treasurer, and he was looking for some assistants to help him man the registration desk. I leapt at the chance: we would be getting free entry to the conference, and Ash would take us along to the Wednesday evening drinks reception, to meet leaders in the field of neuropsychology. In the space of a week, everything would become Very Real.

On Wednesday morning, I braved rush-hour on the tube, and made my way nervously to Queens Square (nearest tube: Russell Square): I had already visited Queens Square on Monday to see a UCL ICN talk, so luckily I knew were I was going. Grabbing a coffee from the local Pret, I headed on in the the Centre, and down the stairs to the lecture hall foyer.

Ash wasn’t there yet, but the lovely Dana Samson (from Brussels) received me and my fellow UEL volunteer assistants – we’d be manning the desk in the foyer, signing people in a taking money where necessary. Soon, Ash’s American research assistant arrived, with member name badges, and bags of energy. And last of all, Ash turned up! A little flustered (he is still fighting off a lingering cough) but ready to face the crowds.

We set up – we were each given a member list to keep track of who was and wasn’t a member (and therefore who needed to pay for the day – members can come to the conferences for free). At this point, I got stupidly excited: on the list were Prof Elizabeth Warrington, Prof Alan Baddeley, and Dr Paul Broks. Unfortunately, no sign of Baddeley or Broks over the two days of the conference, but Warrington did come on both days, and made us all feel quite giddy with the geeky equivalent of star-stuck.

As there were a handful of us helping out on the desk, as well as some assistant psychologists from UCLH, we were able to take it in turns sitting in on the conference’s lectures. I would give comments on all the lectures I saw, but this post would end up being obscenely long. Instead, I will comment on just one, which I felt was probably my favourite of all (not just because I found it the most realistically applicable research, but it was the one which I fully “got” – a lot of the talks did contain information that passed me by without introducing itself).

So, “Neural Correlates Of The Urge For Action”, presented by Stephen Jackson. Maybe it’s worth giving the abstract, as presented in the programme –

Objectives: Our objective was to investigate the neural correlates of the urges that may precede some forms of action. A number of psychiatric and neurological disorders, particularly those with a neurodevelopmental origin (e.g., ADHD, OCD, Tourette Syndrome), are characterised by the presence of unwanted and involuntary thoughts and actions that are difficult to suppress. Individuals with Tourette syndrome perceive a relatively constant demand to suppress their tics in social situations and while involuntary suppression of tics is possible, many individuals report that it can be uncomfortable and stressful to suppress tics and that the urge to tic becomes uncontrollable after a period of suppression. This suggests that tics may be executed to remove the unpleasant sensations associated with the urge to tic.

Methods: We used quantitative meta-analytical techniques, along with new investigations using ultra high field functional MRI, to examine the neural correlates of urges that precede action in both healthy individuals and those with Tourette syndrome. We also carried out functional connectivity analyses on our new data to investigate the patterns of inter-connectivity between brain areas identified in the meta-analyses.

Results: Our data indicate that a network of brain areas including: cingulate cortex, insular cortex, and several thalamic nuclei are particularly involved in the urges associated with involuntary action.

Conclusions: These results are discussed with reference to the suggestion that the insular cortex plays a key role in body representation, and that the anterior insular cortex (AIC) in particular is important for the conscious representation of subjective feelings through the integration of the body’s visceral states with emotional signals.

The difficulty suppressing urges is not restricted to those suffering with tics, such as the TS, OCD and ADHD cases discussed: as Jackson pointed out, we all suffer with unwanted yawn urges, and suppressing yawns does not make the urge to yawn go away. During the questions at the end of the talk, I asked if Jackson had performed any similar studies into the urge the scratch an itch: my mum used to tell me that if you ignore an itch, the urge to scratch it will go away by itself, but if it bears any relation to yawning urges, then my mum was simply wrong (YES! Victory). As with cases of chicken pox, psoriasis etc. where scratching the itch only makes things worse (spreading infection, exacerbating inflammation), it would be interesting to know what causes this urge to scratch, and if there is any therapeutic application for Jackson’s research: to get rid of that itch without scratching.

I hope that’s given you food for thought: I wish I could comment further, but my brain is pretty fried for thinking solidly, quite out of my depth, for two entire days.

For me, the highlight of the conference was being able to talk to leaders in my future field (argh, what a frightening though), and being Ash’s assistant gave me this amazing opportunity. It meant I had to skip an evening of lectures, but as I can catch up with studies in my own time, but can’t relive the BNS drinks-reception experience, I think it was quite a fair trade off. All of the other volunteer assistants decided to go to the lectures, which pretty much left me traipsing along behind Ash like a lovestruck nerd all evening. At the end of the talks, we reconvened just down the road in National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery’s Old Boardroom, for drinks and further neuro-chat.

I was able to talk at leisure with fellow post-grad students, Ewan (from Orkney) and his colleague Simona (from Germany), as we sipped the gloriously free wine. However, as we relaxed in to things, we broke out of our safe circle, and took the plunge, talking to our elder, better, wiser heroes. I managed to corner Dr Jamie Ward, a synaesthesia researcher from the University of Sussex (whose book, The Frog Who Croaked Blue, has been on my Amazing wishlist for quite a while now), to talk about cross-modal technology, as well as discussing ecological validity with Ash. I tried not to plague Ash with questions, but it was tricky – he’s knowledgeable AND charismatic, so easy to talk to.

After a couple of hours steady wine quaffing, Ash was trying to corral people in the direction of dinner – he had invited anyone who had the rest of the evening free to join him for a meal and further chat. He asked me if I was coming. I could have cried with glee. I calmly and coolly replied “oh sure, absolutely”. Inside I was squealing.

And then… Well, that’s for tomorrow’s blog post. After all, a restaurant experience deserves a post all its own.

Oh, and I’m now an Associate Member of the BNS. What a delightful mix of exciting and utterly terrifying.

I’ll be keeping this. Forever. Eeeee.


One thought on “When the brains of brain brains get together

  1. Pingback: 100! « Unravelled

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