OK, I don’t eat brains for lunch: rather, I spent my lunch time, with Rebecca, at the Wellcome Collection yesterday, being talked to about brains.
The speaker was Dr Joe Devlin, a neuroscientist from UCL (just down the road from the Wellcome Collection), and he had come to talk about transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – I knew a couple of things about TMS from the BNS conference a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t really know how it worked. Originally, I had written off going to this talk at all (we have lectures on a Wednesday) but thanks to the tube strike, lectures were cancelled!! I have to say a big thank you to the tube strikers for that – I was still able to easily get to Euston due to London’s other fabulous transport connection, the overground.
As we walked into the Forum on the 1st floor, Rebecca and I were delighted to see a faux-picnic set up: the small stage was covered in fake grass, and there were a couple of picnic baskets filled with apples, which we helped ourselves to. We sat ourselves right in the front row, and had our lunch.
Soon, the speaker and host filed in, sat down, and introduced themselves. If someone could remind me of the host’s name, I’d be very grateful… Anyway, we were told the talk was being recorded for their podcast, so the structure (for the first half hour) would be fairly formal.
In the talk, Devlin told us what TMS was, how it works, and what it can be used for. In brief: TMS involves passing a huge (about 2 tesla) electric current through a copper coil (insulated!) which, through electromagnetic induction, generates an electric current and subsequent magnetic field. When the coil is held next to the head, this magnetic field causes brain “interference” by stimulating neurons in the immediate area of contact. TMS is kept to short pulses (within milliseconds).
My physics is not fantastic, so I didn’t completely understand the “how” of TMS, but I did understand the “why” as it were: by creating interference in certain brain regions, and then observing the effects this has on subjects’ ability to complete certain tasks, we can begin to pinpoint what involvement that brain region has in certain brain functions. Devlin’s research has been followed the effect of TMS on our processing of spoken language: by using TMS whilst people listened to different words (and deciding whether they were real or made-up words), Devlin has been able to explore the effect of visualising on our ability to analyse speech. Yes, visualising: when we learn to read, we learn to imagine how words are spelled when we hear them spoken.
This brought up interesting questions during the Q&A session – is TMS dangerous? Can it be used therapeutically? Does it have any similarities with ECT? And my questions: has Devlin tried this TMS test on 1) illiterate subjects or 2) synaesthetes (who have very strong cross-modal connections), and finally 3) is he looking for eager subjects?
That’s right. I would love to experience TMS. I would also love to be in an fMRI scanner, and have EEG and MEG. So, if you are a neuroscientist or neuropsychologist and you want me, I’m your gal.
The talk really was good fun – I learnt something (well, many things) new, in a really lovely environment, with charismatic and amusing speakers. Plus, the rest of the audience was lovely – very knowledgeable, and chatty after the talk was over (I chatted to one lady about her experiences of ECT). I gave Devlin my details – hopefully I’ll get to experience TMS soon.
Rebecca and I had a brief look around the Wellcome Collection, especially their fantastic book shop – we will be back soon to explore the Collection in more detail.
The Wellcome Collection is just across the road from Euston station. It is completely free, and is open most days (notably not Mondays). They have a nice later opening day on Thursday – 10am-10pm! They also have a lovely looking café – we’ll be trying that next time we’re there.
Image credits: Packed Lunch banner from Wellcome Collection website, the others are my own.