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

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

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

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!

Early Career Researchers Meeting

Just before the Christmas break the University of Sussex hosted an early career researchers (ERC) meeting for members of the Alzheimer’s Research UK South Coast network. This was organized by Chrysia Pegasiou, Devkee Vadakul and our own Orla Bonnar. The aim of the meeting was to promote the sharing of techniques and encourage collaborations between members of the network. PhD students and post docs working on different aspects of Alzheimer’s disease from the universities of Sussex, Portsmouth and Bournemouth attended the event.
The morning started of with three 20 minute talks. Louise Kelly (University of Portsmouth) talked about her work on the locus coeruleus nucleus that she did during her PhD. Lucas Kraft, a PhD student at the Sussex Drug Discovery Centre, talked about his work on identifying novel APOE modulators. Mohsen Seifi (University of Portsmouth), took a very different approach by looking at the gastrointestinal tract.
After a quick break the day continued with a set of flash talks (5 minutes each). Our lab member Kira Shaw gave an excellent talk on recent work in two-photon in-vivo imaging of the mouse hippocampus. After the talks we had to wait for a bit for lunch, but the delicious lasagne was definitely worth it!

Kira giving a presentation

Kira giving her presentation

In the afternoon a careers session was arranged where speakers from various fields spoke to us about their jobs and gave advice on how to pursue a career in their area. It was interesting to learn about career options both inside and outside academia. We found that there’s a surprising range of jobs that require skills you learn during your PhD. The session included speakers from Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Alzheimer’s Society, UCL and the Wellcome Trust.
It was a useful day full of interesting talks. It was nice to hear what other ERCs in the region are working on. A big thank you to Chrysia, who initiated all of this and did an excellent job organizing, as well as Orla and Devkee, who helped her.



6th European Visual Cortex Meeting

Last week (11-13 September) the 6th European Visual Cortex Meeting was being held at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre in London. We went to the meeting with the majority of the talks.

Cris Niell talked about his large-imaging of the cortex using a crystal skull. This resulted in some interesting findings regarding the responses during stimulation and locomotion.

Nathalie Rochefort gave a talk that complimented the previous one very well. She showed findings that could not be explained by the inhibition model, and presented a new model to explain their data.

During the rest of the conferences we heard about a range of interesting topics regarding the visual cortex, including the effect of brain state, the neuroanatomy and the relation with navigation. This has given us many good ideas to improve our own research!

Outreach: Widening participation

Kira, Orla and Katie premiered their ‘tour of the brain’ for year 6 pupils on Wednesday 14 June. They guided the students through three important areas of the brain: the cerebellum, the visual cortex and the frontal lobe.


Left to right: Kira presenting the cerebellum, Katie presenting the visual cortex and Orla presenting the frontal lobe.