Brain fields, cocaine cravings and OCD: Public to be given inside story of scientists' latest experiments

By Ben Miller Published: 23 February 2015

Experts in Cambridge create new theories by carrying out tests on the brain's magnetic fields and patterns of learned addictions

A photo of two small dissections of brain
Age-related grey matter decline in controls and cocaine users© Cambridge Neuroscience
The way our brains work when we lie, feel stressed or learn changes. Magnetic fields within our grey matter, results illustrate, alter dynamically under certain everyday experiences. Interpreting what these shifting patterns mean is a different matter, though.

“We ask people to lie to their bosses, listen to crying babies, watch visual illusions and more,” says Dr Timothy Rittman, a Clinical Research Fellow at Cambridge who is part of a team of neuroscientists behind the MEG – named after the magnetoencephalography scanner – and Me experiments.

“Together we are bringing together science and the creative arts to record a special kind of experiment.

"You could take a picture of a train station and count the number of platforms, which is like looking at the structure of the brain. You could count the number of passengers on the platforms at rush hour, which would be like measuring brain activity.

“Even better, you could take a video of passengers milling in and out of the platform and on to the trains. This would be like measuring dynamic brain processes.

“MEG works by measuring small magnetic signals that the brain produces when it is active. The magnetic signals from the brain are about one-millionth the size of the earth’s magnetic field, so the machine is kept in a lead-lined room and uses special detectors called SQUIDs to pick up these tiny signals.

“One big advantage of MEG is that it works very quickly, measuring the brain’s signal hundreds of times per second. The stream of data from the MEG measurements can be analysed to look for patterns of dynamic brain activity.”

Members of the public helped devise the scenarios posed to each participant, which are about to be revealed at the Cambridge Science Festival. “The project was developed from a public challenge and uses the latest brain imaging technology,” says Dr Rittman, looking ahead to an event which will draw on the expertise of visual artists and researchers to help explain some of the finer details.

“We will give people a taste of neuroscience research and share our successes and frustrations along the way.”

The techniques have already been used to help better understand Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Barry Everitt, who will also be discussing his important findings at the festival, has been studying the psychological and neural mechanisms which cause a compulsion to seek and take drugs.

He says addictive behaviours are learned. “Drug cues exert a major influence on addiction,” explains Everitt.

“They can elicit cravings, drug seeking and taking habits through involuntary processes, and they can precipitate relapse even long into abstinence.

“Increasingly, we are beginning to understand the nature of vulnerability to lose control over drug use – for example, the trait of high impulsivity predisposes individuals to compulsive cocaine use and to relapse during abstinence.

“Despite these advances in understanding, there are few, if any, treatments in development or in clinical use that promote abstinence or prevent relapse even though the potential targets for such treatments have been identified.”

He believes getting rid of the associations is a novel theory with the potential to succeed. And his insights look like being one of the highlights of a programme full of fresh thinking next month, including a pair of professors demonstrating how to build a brain and a Wellcome Trust-backed performance by Laura Jane Dean, whose performance will draw on her experience of living with OCD.

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