Category Archives: Neuroscience

It’s not all About the Neurones, Part 1: Glial Club

Sometime in 1997, two slightly rumpled academics (who’d rather be in the lab) are standing in a classroom introducing a unit on the “Physiology and Pharmacology of the Central Nervous System” to 30 rumpled undergrads (who’d rather be in bed).

Glee

A still from the hit musical neuroscience show, "Glial Club" (I know, it's a lame pun)

The lights are dimmed and a transparency is slipped on to the whirring projector. A bit of fiddling with the focus and the spartan text appears on screen:

What are “brain cells”?

Two types:

As a member of the rumpled mass I copy these words onto my notepad, adding “- around 90% of all brain cells, from Greek for ‘glue’, provide nutrients for neurones, other housekeeping functions” to the “glial cells” bullet point, in accordance with the words of the lecturer.

And so it came to pass that glial cells feature at the top of the page of the first notes I ever took in the first class I ever took on neuroscience. They didn’t get another look-in at any other point during my brief and unglittering academic career.

No, when it came to the brain we were interested in the 100 billion neurones that, we were told, send all the information buzzing around the brain and make us who we are. Glial cells were viewed by neuroscientists as, at worst, the cranial concrete into which the neuronal wiring is laid and, at best, neurones’ housekeepers.

How times change. Over the last 15 years scientists have realised that glial cells hold considerable sway in how the whole house is run; there hardly seems to be a decision taken where they don’t have some influence. Continue reading

Advertisements

Pop Psychology #1: “Bodysnatchers” by Radiohead / The Mind-Body Problem

(First in a series, set to run every five posts, that will look at songs from the popular canon that deal with issues relative to psychology, psychiatry or – as here – neuroscience.)

From the album "In Rainbows" (2007)

Listen to “Bodysnatchers”

No warning, no shuddering to life, no reason why, the riff just begins. It’s mechanical yet fluid, terrifying and irresistible, a circular algorithm cycling ineluctably to Point A, barely contained by the blistering speakers. Soon enough, harmonics are flying off like sparks from a pinwheel.

Trapped within, a voice:

I do not

Understand

What it is

I’ve done wrong

Who does? Who honestly deserves to live like this? As an invisi-mini-me, a homunculus, locked inside a skull, wired up to all these bewildering inputs, riding around in a fleshy container? Continue reading

Forever Unfulfilled: Attention-Deficit, Addiction and the 21st Century Brain

This was written back in January but is, I hope, still relevant. I welcome all comments or e-mails on this topic – please do get in touch.

Photograph (C) 2007 James Brooks

The disconcerting background noise rumbling under the crystalline digital audio of the internet age is intensifying. The unsettling idea that our use of modern technology is somehow rewiring our brains has found increasing expression over the last couple of years. And from the titles of the (mostly American) books propounding this hypothesis it would seem that the neural re-fit is a bit of a botch job. There’s Mark Bauerlein’s thundering The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future, UCLA Professor of Psychiatry Gary Small’s iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind and Maggie Jackson’s Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.

Attention, and our decreasing ability to pay any, is a key issue. You don’t have to look very far to see the harbingers of Jackson’s “Dark Age”. Just witness the crisis in publishing as we’re unable to give books – those weighty slabs of text with all their snaking, idea-laden prose – our undivided. Newspapers are similarly too much. We substitute with skim-read internet articles and the inane volleys of YouTube. Blogs look overlong and unwelcoming. Twitter, with its 140-character-per-post limit, would seem to be about as much many of us can handle. Continue reading