Monthly Archives: April 2015

Researcher in the Spotlight April 2015

Professor Irene Gottlob is a Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Leicester.

What is your research about?

My research is mainly about the connection between the eye and the brain. Visual input occurs through the innermost layer of the eye (the retina) and the optic nerve carrying the signal to the brain. Messages also leave the brain to coordinate eye muscles to focus gaze to objects of attention. If the inward/outward loop does not work, vision and eye movements can be disturbed. I am looking into abnormal childhood development of the visual system as well as degeneration in later life.

One condition I study is “lazy eyes”, known as amblyopia. It is caused by lack of stimulation of one eye in early childhood. The brain suppresses the amblyopic eye for example because this eye turns inwards or outwards (squint) or is not corrected with glasses. Due to plasticity of the brain, this can be reversed by wearing correct glasses and a patch on the healthy eye in order to activate the amblyopic eye and to improve its vision. In Leicester, we are researching how to improve patching in terms of its acceptability to children and the optimal patching regimen for each individual child.

Another problem of visual development in early childhood is faulty development of the centre of the retina (fovea), the area of sharpest vision. For example in genetic diseases such as albinism or retinal degeneration, the retina is underdeveloped. Insight into the exact shape of the fovea can be seen with an instrument called optical coherence tomography (OCT). OCT enables early diagnosis of such diseases.

Nystagmus is a key area of my research, which can also be caused by foveal underdevelopment leading to gaze instability. Patients with nystagmus have continuous to and fro eye movements. My research is about genetic causes, and possible drug and surgical treatment.

OCT also allows us to look at the retina as a potential biomarker in degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia.

How did you come to be working in this field and was this something you always wanted to do?

The first time I came across this field was a fascinating lecture in sensory physiology in my second year of medical school at the University of Vienna (Austria). This inspired me to become an ophthalmologist. After graduating from Medical School, I worked in physiology on a project involving pharmacological properties of the isolated retina. This further fuelled my interest in Neuro-ophthalmology. Later fellowships at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia and in Kiel in Germany allowed me to specialise in nystagmus.

Why is your work important?

The work we do is of direct clinical significance to patients. Nystagmus is a rare disease and we established a specialist centre in Leicester for clinical research into this. Our research spans from genetics to treatment and provides patients with greater insight into their disease as well as the potential amelioration of symptoms. Research into patching techniques and regimens not only optimises an amblyopic child’s treatment, but also aims to reduce the stigma around patching and may improve the quality of life of children and their families. This has a large impact, with amblyopia unlike nystagmus being a common childhood disease. The work we do with adults can also be of benefit; for example the investigations into problems with reading may help design improved methods for adults with visual problems.

A new development in our research is the hand-held OCT. Until recently, it was not possible to examine children with OCT because they could not stay still for long enough! The hand-held scanner is much more suitable for children and means that we can even look at the retinas of newborns. Currently, we have only little knowledge about what constitutes a ‘normal’ retina in a child and of course, things are also changing as they grow and develop. At the University of Leicester Ulverscroft Eye Unit, we are investigating normal and abnormal development of the retina and optic nerve as an aid to future diagnosis. This has been made possible by being able to look at the retinas of such young children.

We have found that the retina is immature at birth. For example, the photoreceptors, the sensors in the retina which detect light, are very small at birth, but elongate by about 30 times, until 6 years of age. We can also follow the development and formation of the fovea (this is the central region of sharpest vision) and this shows that retinal and optic nerve development is not completed before young adulthood.

Do you think your work can make a difference?

Yes! As mentioned before, my research is of direct clinical relevance and has the potential to benefit patients’ lives. Furthermore, my work contributes towards the knowledge we have about certain diseases. For example, I have been able to pinpoint certain genes and syndromes that can cause nystagmus. This can aid with the genetic diagnosis and counselling of the siblings and children of the affected sufferers. The recent development of the handheld OCT has given great insight into the development of the retina and early diagnosis of conditions, such as e.g. albinism, can help to avoid unnecessary investigations under anaesthesia.

What does a typical day involve?

My time is split approximately into a fifty/fifty divide between clinical work and research. On some days I see patients in clinic, and on others, I perform surgery. I have seven postgraduate research students so much of my job involves overseeing their projects.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

I mainly enjoy the contact with patients and students. As well as this, making progress with my research and discovering new things provides great satisfaction.

What do enjoy the least?

The paperwork.

What advice would you give to students/early career researchers?

Research is not easy. I think that one should not be easily discouraged. Throughout their studies, students may have always been successful, and this expectation may be carried through when they begin research. Unfortunately, experiments may go wrong and papers and grants may be rejected. This should not be viewed as a failure, but as the reality of working in such a challenging environment. With enough perseverance and hard work, success will eventually come.

Fighting cancer: Animal research at Cambridge

A new film from the University of Cambridge looks at how mice are helping the fight against cancer and the facilities in which they are housed, and explores issues of animal welfare and the search for replacements.

Researcher in the Spotlight April 2015

Dr Mark Dallas is Lecturer in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience at the University of Reading

What is your research about?

I am interested in how toxic gases (e.g. carbon monoxide) can be potentially used to treat complex brain diseases. Not many people know that the human body actually produces carbon monoxide at low levels and is an important signalling molecule. If we can improve our understanding of how this gas works in our bodies, we will be better placed to utilise it as a therapy. My focus is on how these gases interfere with ion channels, membrane proteins that regulate a vast array of cellular functions.

How did you come to be working in this field and was this something you always wanted to do?

From a young age, I was curious to know more about the human body, and through my education, I developed a keen interest in neuroscience. While studying for my undergraduate degree I enjoyed the time spent in the lab and wanted to continue this. I got offered a PhD in a well-respected neuroscience lab which I accepted. This was a steep learning curve, as there is a lot they do not tell you at undergraduate level! There is still so much we do not understand about the brain, which led me to carry out the research that I do.

Following my PhD, I was lucky enough to join a very successful lab and benefitted from having a supportive PI. During my postdoctoral research posts I became interest in the so called ‘support cells’ of the brain and their importance in not only physiology but also pathology. It is these glial cells that I am continuing to work on, here at the University of Reading.

Why is your work important?

With an ageing population, the number of people affected by degenerative diseases associated with ageing will ultimately increase. Currently 820,000 people in the UK suffer from Alzheimer’s disease so there is a need to understand the mechanisms underlying the disease in order to provide treatments to better manage the disease and ultimately prevent the disease. The only way to address this is to carry out basic scientific research into the biological pathways that are involved in the disease and develop new drugs that target these pathways.

Do you think your work can make a difference?

I strongly believe that it will make a difference; it is a matter of putting all the pieces of the jigsaw together to understand the brain and diseases that affect it. If my work is one piece of the jigsaw then I have made a difference.

Do you think there will ever be a cure for Alzheimer’s?

The nature of the disease itself is proving a challenge for all researchers in the field; however I think that it is not unreasonable to think that within the next 5-10 years we could have some treatments that slow down the progression of the disease. Going forward with further investment in dementia research we can work towards providing treatments that could actually delay the onset of the disease or even prevent people getting the disease.

What does a typical day involve?

At the minute, we have final year pharmacist students carrying out research projects in the lab. I try to get in before they start to clear my email inbox. We meet first thing to discuss the day’s experiments and any results they have generated so far. Then I head to my office to catch up on writing grants or papers. My current focus is to write up some experiments and submit the paper for publication in an appropriate journal. Then I normally have a meeting in the diary to discuss future work or teaching commitments; it varies, but most days there will be at least one meeting to attend.

In the afternoon I could head back to the lab (not as often as I like) or I may be involved in teaching pharmacology to the pharmacists. This is interspersed with keeping on top of emails and other roles that I am engaged with (e.g. STEM ambassador). The afternoon quickly turns to evening and its home to feed the cat and myself.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

The chance to make a difference to people’s lives; on a research front having met with sufferers and carers I know the devastating effect of the disease. By carrying out the research I do hopefully we can look to combat this disease in the near future. I also get satisfaction from teaching the next generation of scientists, watching their journey and seeing the ‘lightbulb’ moment when suddenly they understand is very rewarding.

What do enjoy the least?


Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

When in primary school I was a TV star, appearing in a documentary called ‘Night Owl’. Unfortunately the TV work dried up after this…….

What advice would you give to students/early career researchers?

Take every available opportunity.

Researcher in the Spotlight February 2015

Prof Gareth Leng is head of the Integrative Centre of Physiology at the University of Edinburgh. He uses a multidisciplinary research approach, including electrophysiology, molecular neuroanatomy, behavioural and functional studies, and computational modelling. His research focuses on understanding neuronal networks in the hypothalamus, particularly those controlling pituitary hormone secretion and those controlling appetite and obesity.

What is you research about?

I’m interested in how the hypothalamus regulates physiological processes. My research has embraced many different systems in the hypothalamus -including the networks that control growth hormone secretion and those that regulate appetite, but I began by studying the neurons that secrete vasopressin and oxytocin from the pituitary gland.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

By accident. My first degree was in mathematics, and I thought that it could be interesting to apply this to neuroscience, but I didn’t know much about the brain. So I did an MSc in Birmingham on “Neurocommunications” and stayed there to do a PhD in auditory physiology. Immediately after that, Barry Cross, the Director of the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, recruited me to his research group in Neuroendocrinology. I don’t think I even knew what a hormone was – but Barry Cross didn’t care: he gave me a lab, and told me to do something interesting- he didn’t care what, as long as it was about neuroendocrinology.

You have done some research about love and monogamy. What happens when we fall in love?

I’ve never done any research on love or monogamy. For me, those aren’t particularly interesting questions – we don’t know enough to see the shape of what I would think of as real explanations of these things. My research is on how oxytocin release is regulated in the brain, and how this affects other neurones. Of course I’m interested in the sort of things that might help to understand how oxytocin might change behaviour. This is a big challenge, because we need to find a way of understanding how a brief exposure to this hormone alters neuronal network properties for a very long time, and in a way that makes them behave in new but meaningful ways. It seems as though oxytocin can “reprogramme” brain networks – or redirect networks from working in one mode to working in a different mode. I’ve been fortunate enough to find some things that seem to help us understand how this might happen, and if this is what happens in our brains when we fall in love, well maybe what I do might help to understand that one day.

Can only humans fall in love?

If we think of love as comprising lust, sexual attraction and long term attachment, then most birds, many fish, some reptiles and amphibians, but just 3% of mammalian species fall in love.

How do we know that oxytocin is responsible for this bond?

Oxytocin, or a molecule so closely related to oxytocin that it is effectively identical, is present in all vertebrate species. Indeed a very closely related molecule is present in most if not all invertebrates too. Oxytocin (or its close relative) is involved in processes that are integral to reproduction – generally in many different aspects of reproduction, depending upon the species concerned. In prairie voles, one of the few monogamous species of mammal, a female bonds with a male when oxytocin is released into her brain in large amounts during sex. A bond can be formed without sex if oxytocin is given into the brain of a female vole in the presence of a male- and if an oxytocin antagonist is given instead, then sex does not produce the same bond.

Why is the mountain vole promiscuous but the prairie vole monogamous?

They both have plenty of oxytocin, but the key difference is in where the oxytocin acts. These two species have oxytocin receptors in different brain regions.

Are there also differences in humans? Do men and women fall differently in love (have different numbers of receptors), and can this also differ between individuals?

A successful bond involves the male as well as the female, and what happens in his brain is a bit different to what happens in hers. In males, often the sign that a bond is formed is in the expression of aggression towards other males. What we might call jealousy perhaps. This seems to be linked to the release in the brain of vasopressin – a different but closely related molecule. Again, differences between species reflect differences in where receptors for vasopressin are expressed in the brain. In fact, we can look at differences between species in the genes for vasopressin receptors, and these differences predict whether a species is monogamous or promiscuous. So what about humans? Well the vasopressin receptor gene in humans is one of the most variable parts of our genome – so different individuals have slightly different versions of this gene. Intriguingly, these differences seem to correlate with relationship success in men.

What effect does oxytocin have on men and women?

In women, oxytocin is essential for lactation. Without oxytocin, suckling will not produce milk let-down at the breast. It is released during childbirth, and without it, labour can be difficult and prolonged. It is released during sex: in men, it facilitates penile erection and ejaculation, and in women it facilitates sperm transport up the reproductive tract to increase the likelihood of fertilisation. But it also has many other effects- on the heart, pituitary gland, gastrointestinal tract, and even on bone. In the brain? We don’t know. We don’t have any direct way of measuring oxytocin release in brain regions in the human. There have been lots of studies involving squirting oxytocin into the nose in huge, huge amounts, in the hope that some might get into the brain. It seems like wishful thinking to me- the brain is very well protected to prevent oxytocin getting in from outside, but the amounts given are so huge that maybe a bit gets in. But it seems more likely to me that the effects observed in these studies reflect the indirect consequences of actions of oxytocin at the periphery – on the penis, the heart, the gut and elsewhere. These studies don’t control for the peripheral effects of the hormone, they don’t give any evidence that any of the oxytocin given into the nose actually enters the brain in the relevant time frame, and mostly they are best filed in the wastepaper basket.

Oxytocin, vasopressin and autism – is there a connection?

Mice that lack oxytocin show some subtle defects in social behaviour – they aren’t good at telling the difference between familiar and unfamiliar individuals. So there’s a lot of interest in whether defects in oxytocin signalling may contribute to autism – and even if they don’t in whether supplementing oxytocin in the brain might ameliorate the social deficits of autism. It’s a mixed picture so far though. The most rigorous study of oxytocin and autism so far has shown that there is no lack of oxytocin in autistic children. There have been cases where autistic individuals have been shown to have a mutation in the oxytocin receptor – but these are very rare, and it’s not known whether similar mutations occur also in non-autistic individuals. Intranasal application, on the best study so far, is ineffective, unsurprisingly in my view. It’s too early to let go of this idea completely – but we need a breakthrough. Specifically, we need to find a molecule that acts like oxytocin but which we can get into the brain – a molecule that can cross the blood-brain barrier which is something that oxytocin can’t do. Either that, or we need to find a way of boosting the release of oxytocin within the brain.

Celebrating 100 years of women’s membership at The Society

On 23 January 1915, The Physiological Society formally decided to admit women as members. Although The Society, founded in 1876, had never explicitly excluded women, female members were not officially admitted until July 1915. To gain membership of The Society, an existing member first had to propose someone and signatures were added in support. The Committee then decided upon approval of the candidate, after which the members were formally elected during a Society Meeting.

Science Slam in Leeds

Science Slam in Leeds_Fotor

Participants of the first Science Slam in Leeds, 18 March 2015


The University of Leeds held an inaugural Science Slam as part of the Leeds Festival of Science 2015, culminating in a competitive show at The Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds on Wednesday 18 March 2015. Science undergraduates teamed up with performing arts school students to be trained by science communication experts. They developed short pieces about the human body, which they then performed to an 80-strong public crowd. The project was funded by the Wellcome Trust ISSF fund and an Outreach grant from The Physiological Society. It received overwhelmingly positive feedback by our audience, who were all interested in attending a similar event in the future.

Members of the co-ordinating team had been involved with traditional slams in the past. A science slam is a method of science communication where researchers can present short talks on their work in an engaging and out-of-the-box way. These are normally done through the medium of spoken word poetry, where researchers/performers present their own work on a given topic. Speakers aren’t allowed to use PowerPoint presentations in order to avoid lecture style shows and a time limit is usually given. They showcase their pieces, perform them on stage and an audience votes on a winner. The STEM team at the University of Leeds worked together with Charlotte Haigh, an academic in the Faculty of Biological Sciences, to co-ordinate the project and recruit science undergraduates. Selected students from Cathedral Academy Performing Arts (CAPA), Wakefield, were selected to form teams with these undergraduates. Students at CAPA have extensive experience of working with older students and take part in many theatrical productions whilst following their enriched performance curriculum at the school. The team also worked with Helen Bamber and Sarah Farrar, staff from CAPA who supported the students. Helen provides drama provision at the school and was on hand at rehearsals and training sessions to ensure all the performances were of a very high standard.

Teams also received professional training from science communication and performance experts as most of the undergraduates had no previous experience of working on theatrical productions.
Sam Illingworth, a lecturer on Science Communication from Manchester Metropolitan University, ran the first two facilitation sessions. In these sessions, the teams learnt about the three most important aspects of communication and performance: the narrative, the audience and the self.
Lewis Hou delivered the next training session and encouraged the teams to derive three main learning points from their performances. The teams picked the most important take-home messages they wanted to convey to the audience and developed these to be more prominent in their pieces.
The final training session was delivered by Victoria Pritchard, a professional actress, communication trainer and voice coach at production company Screenhouse, who recorded the whole show, which can be found on the ‘STEM at Leeds’ YouTube channel. All the trainers were thoroughly impressed with the growth and development each student made on their performance skills throughout the project and the students hugely benefited from the cross-pollination of mixing the sciences and arts in their teams.

Due to its success, the science slam will be run again in next year’s Leeds Festival of Science working with the CAPA students but perhaps involving other local schools in a head to head competition!

Dr Charlotte Haigh, University of Leeds (This article was published in Physiology News 99)


Outreach grants

If you’d like to run your own Science Slam or have another idea for engaging schools and the public with physiology, you can apply for an Outreach grant of up to £1,000 to support your activity. For more details, please visit: