Updates, so many updates, but yet so few!

Lots has happened since our last update, when Silvia was joining the lab. I had a baby, COVID19 happened, we were locked down, got back up and running, Orla and Dori got their PhDs and went off to post docs in the US, and we published (among other things) our exciting results that neurovascular function differs between neocortex and hippocampus. Kira went on maternity leave, had the gorgeous Rory, and came back. The MRC grant that was just started when we last posted is nearly finished. We have had and completed a short MRC project looking at SARS CoV-2 vascular infectivity. Tish joined the lab. Silvia has her PhD! It’s time to take a deep breath and rejig how we promote our work on this website so we don’t leave it so long to update next time. Watch this space!

New MRC project

October marks the start of our new MRC grant: “Is Alzheimer’s disease triggered by a failure of the brain’s blood supply?”

Kira and Silvia will be starting the work on this exciting new project. Watch this space for research updates as we progress with the work!

Laura, Silvia and Kira (left to right): the dreamteam!

Welcome Silvia!

Silvia Anderle has joined the lab to study for a School of Psychology-funded PhD researching neurovascular dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease.  We’re really excited to have her, and she looks happy to be joining us!

Our new PhD student is wearing a lab coat and carrying flasks of coloured liquid!
Look how science-y she is!

Sussex Neuroscience Python Course

On 22 and 23 August, Dori organised a 2-day Sussex Neuroscience Python Course. 18 participants joined the workshop and learned to use Python with the help of Graeme Benstead-Hume and Sarah Wooller, both from the lab of Frances Pearl. Kira also joined as one of the participants.

For Dori, the course was preparation for their time at the Nencki Open Lab Summer School on Behavioral Neuroscience where they will be teaching Python as part of the course.

All the material from the course, including lecture capture (!) is freely available on Dori’s GitHub, just click the green button on the left and download as zip.

Dori giving a presentation at the Python course
Dori giving a presentation at the Python course

Neuroscience workshop for Widening Participation

On 16 January Kira, Orla and Dori gave three workshops for schools visiting our university. The schools were visiting us as part of the Widening Participation initiative, which aims to introduce young people to higher education.

We gave a guided tour through the brain, discussing what neurons are and how they communicate, how the cerebellum adapts, what’s so special about H.M.’s hippocampus and how your frontal lobe helps you make moral decisions.

Demonstrating of cerebellum
Kira and Orla are demonstrating the cerebellum experiment

Join us!! PhD studentship available to study nitric oxide synthase neurons’ role in visual processing and neurovascular coupling

We are delighted to encourage applications for a PhD student to join our lab next year on a Leverhulme-funded position (see ad below). If you are interested, please email Catherine (catherine.hall@sussex.ac.uk) for help in preparing your application well in advance of the deadline of 31st January, 2019.

Experimental setup and example image for recording neuronal and vascular activity during mouse behaviour.

Sensory processing is regulated by diverse populations of interneurons that modulate excitatory neuronal activity to shape information transmission. Certain interneuron populations may also be key mediators of the vascular response to increased neuronal activity that matches blood flow to increases in neuronal energy requirements. Of the different types of interneuron, the most enigmatic is, perhaps, the population that expresses neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS). These cells may increase blood flow but have an unknown role in information processing not only in sensory cortex but in upstream regions such as the hippocampus. To uncover their role in information processing, and to understand how they may help the brain to balance energy supply and demand, this project will investigate the conditions that lead to activation of nNOS neurons in sensory cortex and the hippocampus, and whether such conditions also increase local blood flow. The project will involve imaging the activity of nNOS interneurons, excitatory neurons and blood vessels in awake behaving mice navigating a virtual reality environment, which altering the sensory, spatial or contextual (novelty, reward state) information presented to the mice. Applicants should have a background in neuroscience or a related discipline and some experience of programming for data analysis.

For more information about how to apply and other PhD studentships available on the “Sensation and Perception to Awareness: Leverhulme Doctoral Scholarship Programme” at Sussex please see here: https://www.sussex.ac.uk/sensation/applications

Lewes STEMfest

Last Saturday 28 April our lab was at Lewes STEMfest. We had a stand were visitors could battle each other using the power of their brain, or were they could control someone else’s arm! In the process we tried to teach them about how the brain works.

Katie and Orla mind battle
Katie and Orla are battling to see who has the strongest frontal cortex

We had great fun, Orla even overcame hear fear and held a snake! And it was great to see so many people interested in Neuroscience!

Orla overcomes her fear of holding snakes
Orla overcomes her fear!


Kira and Dori to start the Sussex Neuroscience Coding Club

In our projects we spend a lot of our time coding in order to analyse our data. Kira primarily uses Matlab, and Dori uses Matlab and Python. In fact, what a lot of people may not know when they start their career in Neuroscience, is that these days the ability to code is pretty much an essential. It can save the researcher many hours, and even improve the quality/objectivity of their data analysis.

Why did we want to start this group?

We noticed that many students were joining the school with little previous experience coding, and limited support for learning the new skill. It can be very daunting when you first start, with so much jargon and syntax ahead of you.  And as you delve further into the syntax, you may even feel duped – afterall, ‘cellfun’ isn’t as exciting as it’s name suggests!

We want to provide a safe space for people to work on developing their coding skills. Whether that be someone who is just starting, and wants some direction on where to begin; or an experienced coder who wants dedicated time to work on their analysis. People of all abilities are welcome, and we want everyone to feel relaxed and supported.

The aim of this group is to “help people to help themselves“.

What is the format of the session?

There will be an short 30 minute lecture, followed by 1.5 hours for self-directed study with the opportunity to ask other people questions. For the initial 30 minute lecture, we welcome anyone who wants to present. This could be someone who wants to share their knowledge, or someone who is stuck on an analysis problem and wants feedback from the group. The remaining 1.5 hours are meant to allow everyone to work on their own projects. That can be an online coding course, writing their own script, or something else. During this time you are able to ask questions and discuss your code. We will not be providing projects, but are happy to point you to resources where you can find projects to work on.

When are the sessions?

The sessions will be every Wednesday 2-4pm in CRPC seminar room, University of Sussex.

People can attend all or just some of the sessions. It is completely up to you, and what fits your schedule the best.

Starting your own coding club

If anyone is interested in setting up a similar group in their own University or workplace, and would like some ideas please feel free to contact Kira by email on kira.shaw@sussex.ac.uk.

We want to see as many people coding as possible, and for everyone to get the support they need!

Alzheimer’s Research UK Research Conference 2018

From 19th – 21st March I was able to attend the annual Alzheimer’s Research UK conference, the biggest one to date!

Day 1 was an early career researcher day where we were able to meet other PhD students in the field, as well as learn about their work through a series of talks. One challenging aspect of the day was perfecting our elevator pitches! Trying to describe a PhD in 30 seconds is difficult when there is so much to say – however it was really interesting to learn about the work of others in a concise and simple way. We also had a careers section where both industry and academic representatives told us about their careers and how they got to where they are now.

Day two was when the main section of the conference began, it started off with a short speech from an amazing ARUK fundraiser who had sadly lost his mother to dementia and has been raising money for the charity ever since. It was both humbling and inspiring to hear him speak and served as a reminder to us all why we have chosen this field of research.

Throughout the next two days there was a series of talks on dementia research that is taking place throughout the UK as well as information about the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI). UK DRI is a joint £290 million investment from the Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK which aims to bring together dementia researchers from different fields in a national institute.

I was also given the opportunity to discuss my work with conference delegates via a poster presentation. Not only was it really helpful to have comments and feedback on my work but it was great to present alongside other dementia researchers from Sussex, representing the Dementia Research Group.



Outreach at the Brighton Science Festival

On Saturday, myself (Katie), Kira and Devin went to the Brighton science festival to host a stall, teaching children a bit about the brain and giving them a taste of what neuroscience is like. We set up ‘build your own neuron’, where they could make their own neuron from pipe cleaners, pom poms and plasticine. The kids could also make brain hats so that they could see all the parts of the brain in relation to their own heads.

‘Backyard brains’ proved to be very popular, as kids were able to control their parents’ arms with their brains! We hook up electrodes to the arm muscles of the children, and another set of electrodes to a nerve in the arm of their parent. When the children move their arms, the electrodes pick up the activity, and through an Arduino, this leads to stimulation of their parent’s arm. It was great to see the children squeal delightedly as their parents’ hands twitched whenever they moved their own arm. It was also a nice opportunity to illustrate how neurons work through changes in charge, and that electrical stimulation can therefore cause our muscles to move.

Controlling each other arms
Controlling each other arms with Backyard Brains

Our main attraction was the ‘mind-flex duel’ game. The aim of this game is to push a ball away from yourself through the power of your brain. Players wear a headset with a sensor that picks up activity in the frontal lobe. The player for whom it senses more activity gets more “power” and therefore pushes the ball harder away from them. Parents and children alike loved this and were fascinated by how it worked! The children wanted tips on how they could beat their parents (and the adults were especially keen on finding out how to win against their partners), and so it was a really great way of teaching them in what functions the frontal lobe is particularly involved, which led to a lot of children practising their times tables!

Katie with a snake around her neck
Katie with Sunny around her neck

We also enjoyed going around different stalls during our break, and made a bee-line for the reptile rooms, where we were lucky enough to be allowed to hold one of the snakes (his name is Sunny!) We also talked with the people running the coding education stand, which really inspired us to get involved in hosting classes for young children starting to learn- hopefully we’ll be able to start doing this soon!