As a little aside from my day job it’s been great fun to be running a project with my colleague Saber Sami and a local film-maker from Cambridge, James Murray-White. We’ll be designing a brain experiment over the next few months and we need your help!

Together we are bringing together science and the creative arts to record a special kind of experiment. We are inviting you to help answer your own questions in the MEG and Me project. Over the next few months we will be using a new brain scanning technique called Magnetoencephalography (MEG) to look at dynamic processes of the brain. We will record the experiment as it happens through a series of on-line films and present the findings to an audience at the Cambridge science festival in March. We need your help to make it happen.

Cognition and the brain

There are a wealth of brain functions that require ‘thought’ called cognitive processes. These cognitive processes range from the simple things such as how we move our legs or the speed that we breath, through to abstract and complex functions such as how we appreciate art or understand language. As a dementia researcher, the first stage of understanding how diseases such as PSP, CBD or Alzheimer’s change the brain is to work out what the brain does in people without these diseases.

One way to understand cognitive processes in the brain is to use brain imaging. Over the years brain imaging has revealed the structure of the brain and how different parts of the brain are more or less active depending on what the brain is doing. Newer brain imaging techniques consider dynamic brain activity, such as magnetoencephalography (MEG).

To understand what dynamic brain processes are, let us consider a train station. 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. Next 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.

Brain scanning with MEG

Magnetoencephalography – or MEG for short – works by measuring small magnetic signals that the brain produces when it is active. The magnetic signals from the brain are about 1 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.

MEG has been used to study dementia, and there are several projects ongoing in Cambridge and other centres. These studies are helping us to understand how the dynamic brain activity changes in Alzheimer’s disease. In this way MEG can help us to understand why affected brain areas cause cognitive problems, such as memory problems. MEG may also be able to provide a measure of the disease that can be used to test new treatments.

Get involved!

We want your ideas. What would you like to know about the brain? Do you have a burning question that we can use MEG to answer?

If you are in the Cambridge area, we would love you to join us on 11th of November at the Cambridge Science Centre (www.cambridgesciencecentre.org) between 6:30pm and 8:30pm. If you can not make it then, we will be posting videos online and you can let us know your thoughts via twitter: @megandme2014. You can also email us at: tr332@medschl.cam.ac.uk We will be presenting the final results of the MEG and Me study at the Cambridge Science Festival (www.cam.ac.uk/science-festival) in March 2015.

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