Category Archives: Events

Wikipedia, women, and science

Every second, 6000 people across the world access Wikipedia. The opportunity to reach humans of the world is enormous. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many eminent scientists, especially eminent female scientists, don’t have pages!

Melissa Highton is on a mission to fix this. Her first step was bringing together a group of students and librarians for an Edit-a-thon to update the page of the first female students matriculated in the UK, who started studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. They’re known as the Edinburgh Seven.

Not only do Edit-a-thons provide information for the world, the Edinburgh Seven serve as role models for current students studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Melissa shines light on Wikipedia being skewed towards men, and also on structural inequalities that lead to so few women having pages. Women are often written out of history; they are the wives of famous someones who get recognised instead, they get lost in records because they change their last name, or they juggle raising a family, meaning they don’t work for as long or publish as much.

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Having a forum to talk openly and transparently about these inequalities is one of the steps to closing the gap. Our event for Physiology Friday 2017 did just that, and we hope participants will continue the conversation. Listen to Melissa’s talk here.

 

Watchers on the wall: Microglia and Alzheimer’s Disease

By Laura Thei, University of Reading, UK

The watch, worn by years of use, sits ticking on our table for the first time in two years. It has a simple ivory face and is the last memorabilia my partner has from Grandad Percy. Percy passed from us after a long personal battle with dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease. It is in his name that my partner and I will take to the beautiful winding pathways beside the Thames, to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Society.

We will be taking part in a 7 km Memory Walk, with thousands of others, some my colleagues from the University, each sponsored generously by friends and families, each who has had their life touched by this disease in some way. Last year nearly 80,000 people took part in 31 walks, raising a record £6.6 million. As a researcher in Alzheimer’s disease, I am acutely aware of every penny’s impact in helping to solve the riddle of dementia.

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Alzheimer’s Society Memory Walk

Alzheimer’s disease is ridiculously complicated. Oh, the premise is simple enough: two proteins, amyloid beta and phosphorylated tau, become overproduced in the brain and start to clog up the cells like hair down a plug. This causes these cells to be deprived of nutrients, oxygen and other vital factors that keep them alive. This eventually causes regional loss in areas specific to memory and personality. It’s simple in theory, but the reality is that we still have much to learn.

Current, extensive research is starting to answer these questions and whilst there is a growing list of risk factors – genetic (APOE4, clusterin, presenilin 1 and 2) and environmental (age, exercise, blood pressure) – confirmation only occurs when a brain scan shows the loss of brain region volume in addition to the presence of amyloid beta and tau. This means that by the time someone knows they have the disease, it’s possible that it’s already been chugging away at their brains for some time.

So we need to push diagnoses earlier. To do that we need to look at the very early stages of the disease, down to a cellular level, to find out how we can prevent the build-up of amyloid and tau in the first place. This is what I, the group I’m in, and many other researchers nationally and globally are striving to do.

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In a non-active state, microglia lie quietly surveying their local area of the brain. ©HBO

I am specifically focusing on the immune cells of the brain, microglia, and their contribution. Microglia are the most numerous cells in the brain. They act as the first line of defence, so their involvement and activation is often seen as an early sign of disease progression. Like all good defences, they tend to be alerted to damage before it becomes deadly. But, like the neurons (the basic building blocks of the brain), microglia are also susceptible to the disease. If they die, does that leave the brain more vulnerable to further insult? That is what I would like to know too!

In a non-active state, microglia lie quietly surveying their local area of the brain. When activated by a threat to the brain, they cluster around the targeted area, changing shape in the process. They then enter one of two states. The pro-inflammatory state releases molecules that attack the harmful pathogens directly, and the anti-inflammatory state releases ones that promote healing and protection of the area.

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Microglia can change shape to either attack pathogens or protect the area. ©Nickelodeon

With Alzheimer’s, microglia are activated by the accumulation of amyloid, not damage. They absorb the amyloid beta, and in the process, trigger the pro-inflammatory response. This then increases the permeability of the brain’s blood supply, allowing immune cells into the brain to assist removal of the excess protein. However, in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients, the amyloid beta production outdoes the microglia’s ability to remove it. This creates a perpetual cycle of pro-inflammatory response, releasing molecules that can kill cells in the brain. It is unclear whether there is a threshold between beneficial or detrimental in the microglial response.

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Microglial response to fight Alzheimer’s Disease can become detrimental. ©2011 Scott Maynard

Given the importance of microglia in neurodegenerative diseases, a new field of microglial therapeutics has recently emerged, ranging from pharmacologically manipulating existing microglia by switching their response status, to inhibiting microglial activation altogether. Continued research and clinical efforts in the future will help us to improve our understanding of microglial physiology and their roles in neurological diseases.

We’re making progress, but there’s still a long way to go, which is why every penny counts!

Mitochondria: the little engines that could

By Beatrice Filippi, University of Leeds, UK, & Andrew Philp, University of Birmingham, UK, @andyphilp_lab

Mitochondria, the energy producing bodies within our cells, play a pivotal role in all aspects of body function. Different pathological conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases and aging have all been associated to the loss of mitochondrial function.

As such, understanding how mitochondria are regulated in these disease states holds tremendous therapeutic potential for tackling numerous diseases of aging. Over the past two days, scientists from around the world have been discussing current topics in mitochondrial function at The Physiological Society’s sponsored ‘Mitochondria: Form and Function’ meeting in London. The meeting has focused on 4 main topics thought central in the regulation of mitochondrial function; (1) calcium signalling, (2) mitochondrial dynamics, (3) mitophagy, and (4) mitochondrial metabolism. Below is a brief summary of the topics discussed in each symposium.

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Mitochondria in lung cells

Calcium and Mitochondria 

The mitochondria can take up and release calcium depending on their cellular needs. The calcium in the mitochondria is involved in energy production. Rises in calcium in the cell also activate or inhibit different cellular events. Finally, changes in calcium levels in the mitochondria can trigger cell death. The identification of the molecules that control the mitochondria’s calcium homeostasis (i.e. the levels of calcium inside or outside the mitochondria) has been the focus of the scientific community for the last few years. This will favour the development of more targeted therapies that specifically restore the ability of the mitochondria to regulate calcium homeostasis.

Mitochondrial Dynamics 

In response to excess or lack of nutrients, mitochondria adapt their functions by changing shape and localization within the cell and increasing or decreasing in number. Fusion causes the formation of bigger and elongated mitochondria and is linked with increased energy generation. For example, insulin increases mitochondria fusion in heart muscle cells to improve mitochondrial membrane potential (the difference in ions on both sides of the membrane), elevate levels of energy in the cell, and oxygen consumption. Mitochondria fission, or separation into smaller parts, is linked with a decrease in energy production in response to energy excess. The adaptation to changes in metabolic environment, meaning energy levels, is controlled by changes in mitochondrial dynamics. Alterations in the fission/fusion mechanisms have been associated to various metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson and Alzheimer’s.

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Networks of mitochondria (in blue) within cells

Mitophagy 

To maintain healthy and functional mitochondria, mitochondria undergo cyclical periods of synthesis and degradation. The process of mitochondrial degradation is termed mitophagy, and appears to be of specific functional importance in all tissues within the body. Of interest, compared to other aspects of mitochondrial regulation, such as calcium handling and dynamics, very little is known about how mitophagy is regulated and what the physiological signals are that causes mitophagy to begin in cells. One of the main limitations in the field is the ability to measure mitophagy in vivo, meaning in living cells. However, this gap in knowledge appears to have been addressed by the generation of new mouse models in which researchers can visualise when mitophagy is happening in real time. Moving forward, these tools could help shed light on how mitophagy contributes to mitochondrial control in numerous diseases of aging.

Mitochondrial Metabolism 

Mitochondria are dynamically regulated within our body and highly sensitive to changes in physiological stimuli such as exercise, inactivity and changes in diet. The focus of the final symposium was on two key factors, (1) how exercise changes mitochondrial content (the molecules inside of it) and function in skeletal muscle, and (2) how our diet affects mitochondrial function. It has been known for over 50 years that exercise increases mitochondrial content and the result is an increased oxidative capacity of the muscle (their ability to use oxygen) and greater resistance to fatigue. It also now appears that exercise changes mitochondrial dynamics in skeletal muscle, and alters the organisation of mitochondrial form and function. In contrast, ingestion of high amounts of saturated fats can lead to the development of Type 2 Diabetes, with this process appearing to occur in parallel to a reduction in mitochondrial function. Of note, this negative effect can be inherited in offspring when the mother ingests a high-fat diet, suggesting genetic imprinting, heritable changes in genes, is occurring. Therefore, strategies to maximise the exercise signal(s) or combat the negative effects of saturated fats on mitochondrial function are being explored as frontline approaches to combat numerous diseases of aging.

10 Epic Physiology Cakes

It’s that time of year again! Great British Bake-Off time Bio-Bodies Bake-Off time! To celebrate the return of the baking season, staff at The Physiological Society have been reminiscing about past entries to our annual hunger-inducing competition. From muscle to kidneys, representing health or disease, grossly graphic or detailed to the molecular level, check out our 10 favourites, in no particular order. If you haven’t quite decided what area of physiology you would like to cover in this year’s competition, these delicious treats might give you some inspiration!

  1. Operation Indigestion: Stomacake, by Anousha Chandran, Kujani Wanniarachchi, Susannah Watson and Anna Higgins

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Rosie Waterton, our Governance Manager, admits to having limited physiology knowledge, but confesses to a somewhat higher than average level of cake eating experience. “This cake is probably my favourite,” she explains. “There is something darkly ironic about demonstrating indigestion through something so delicious and tempting! I also just love a good pun.”

  1. Anatomy of the Face, by Sophia Rothewell

Rosie couldn’t help picking a second choice when she saw Anatomy of the Face. She was struck by its uncanny resemblance to a Game of Thrones white walker…. only colourful.

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©HBO

  1. Not Kidneying Around, by Carlotta Meyer

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Jen Brammer, our Membership Engagement Manager, another pun fan, loved this delicious masterpiece, Not Kidneying Around. Whilst unsure about the anatomical accuracy, she did enjoy debating whether the appendages were pickled onions or grapes!

  1. Upper Leg, by Jack Croft

Bobby Harrop, our summer intern and a keen cyclist, was immediately struck when seeing the cake titled Upper Leg.

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He commented: “when cycling, I rely heavily on the input of my upper legs and I was fascinated to see this submission highlighting the complexity of the Rectus Femoris and Vastus muscle group whilst including real detail in the muscular tone. Plus in terms of parts of the body to eat, muscle is probably the most appetising as it is mostly protein!”

  1. The Effects of Drug Abuse on the Human Body, by Amy Yang

Anisha Tailor, our Outreach Officer, has probably spent the most time browsing through the #Biobakes entries. Each year, she develops a minor obsession with the hashtag and eagerly awaits the first entry!

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“I think my favourite cake of all time has to be the one titled The Effects of Drug Abuse on the Human Body. It was a bit of a shock to find it in my inbox at first, but it became one of my firm favourites of 2016: it’s visceral, yet educational, although perhaps not very appetising”.

  1. Guts, by the students from Tiverton High School

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Hannah Woolley, Editorial Assistant, spent far too long deciding which one was her favourite. She finally decided she liked this one the most because it looked gross.  “It’s a compliment! I particularly liked the attention to detail that went into the blood splatter.”

  1. A Tasty Great Cake, by Katie Pennington

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Daïmona Kounde, our Communications Officer, loves picking yummy cake photos for our social media. “I have a soft spot for the DNA-themed cakes,” she says. “My favourite, A Tasty Great Cake, is not just beautiful and colourful, but it also has the A, T, C and G bases paired correctly, with a colour key to boot. The ‘base necessities’ pun in the cake description was just… icing on the cake (sorry)!”

  1. Synapse, by Nicola Armstrong

Angela Breslin, our Education Manager, has been following the BioBakes competition ever since it started, and continues to be amazed by the high standard of entries each year.

“It’s a difficult choice but if I had to choose just one, it would be the cake titled simply Synapse, for the sheer amount of detail and the elegant way in which it shows how an action potential travels between nerves – somehow managing to show physiology in a single snapshot. It’s also a beautiful bake!”

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  1. Louis’s Lungs, by Louis Christofi

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Samantha Chan, Events & Marketing Officer, has tried baking different cakes and biscuits in the past, but has never attempted a BioBakes cake. Sadly, staff aren’t allowed to enter, so she will just have to make do with all your entries – or make some cakes for the office! Her favourite was Louis’s Lungs, which shows the structure of the lungs.

  1. Your baking masterpiece!

We can’t wait to be amazed by this year’s entries. Maybe yours will make it to our next round of favourites! If you’re still a bit stuck for ideas for BioBakes 2017, browse our Twitter hashtag #Biobakes, read about one of our previous winners, or take a look at our 2014, 2015 and 2016 Facebook albums!

All you’ve got left to do is bake! For full terms and conditions visit our competition page. Entries are due in by 5pm, Friday 6 October, and photos must include the #Biobakes photo entry form to be considered.

The Glastonbury of Neuroscience

By Anjanette Harris, University of Edinburgh, @anjiefitch

I have been to many music festivals in my time, but last month I went to my first Neuroscience Festival. Every two years, the British Neuroscience Association holds the Festival of Neuroscience, which boasts a jam-packed program of research talks from experts across many disciplines within neuroscience, as well as workshops and discussion forums. It is quite simply the national celebration of neuroscience.

Last month, nestled amongst the canals of Birmingham, the International Conference Center provided the perfect backdrop for over 1500 scientists from around the world to get together, share their latest data, and enthuse one another. This year, The Physiological Society hosted a strand running through the festival called The Neurobiology of Stress as part of their annual theme Making Sense of Stress. One of the symposia, organised by Professor Megan Holmes, brought together researchers from around the world, including myself, to present our work on imaging the emotional brain.

What puts us at risk of depression?

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Dr Stella Chan, a lecturer in clinical psychology from the University of Edinburgh, kicked off with the staggering statistic that half of all cases of depression first occur in adolescence. Stella reminded us that adolescence is a tricky time in which teenagers struggle with intense emotions on the road to self-discovery. But why do some youngsters develop depression while others don’t?

To answer this question, Stella studies how young people perceive themselves and the world around them. One startling finding is that those at risk of depression find it harder to see joy in other people’s faces. Because Stella uses teenagers at risk of, but not yet suffering from, depression she is able to see if there are changes in perception that may flag up that a youngster is likely to develop depression. If Stella can untangle whether a negative self-opinion is the cause or consequence of depression, she may be able to develop mind-training techniques to prevent depression in those at risk.

Untangling cause and effect using mice

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Dr Marloes Henckens, a post-doctoral researcher from the Donders Institute at Radboud University, presented her work on the effects of stress on brain function. She uses both human and mouse subjects to help her distinguish between cause and effect. Marloes began by setting her work in context; she highlighted that the brain is a collection of networks and that brain disorders are probably caused by disorders of the connections between different networks.

With that in mind, Marloes showed that stressing humans or giving them stress hormones caused the connections that make up the fear network to become stronger. While this is useful for priming a person to tackle danger, it may lead to an anxiety disorder, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in which suffers are haunted by intense unpleasant memories. Marloes takes pictures of the brains of mice with PTSD-like symptoms and has shown that reduced activity at the front of the brain (important for reducing unpleasant memories) is a consequence and not the cause of PTSD. It remains to be seen how connections between different networks are affected in mice with PTSD.

Hormonal influences on brain activity in rats
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The following speaker, Professor Craig Ferris of Northeastern University, is the pioneer of imaging rats’ brains while they are awake. Craig began with a whistle-stop tour of the groundbreaking technology that he and his team have developed. His special scanning technology allows researchers to monitor brain activity while the rats are responding to things. For example, Craig showed changes in brain activity in mother rats as their pups start to suckle. It comes as no surprise that the brain areas involved in reward and motivation are active with breast-feeding. In fact, in these rats, breast-feeding is more rewarding than cocaine!

Craig then presented images of brain activity involved in aggression. To observe this, he first took pictures of the brain of a male rat that was happily lying in the scanner with its girlfriend, and then introduced an unfamiliar male rat and observed the changes in the first rat’s brain. The abrupt change in brain activity that was seen in the male rat’s brain might be described as blind rage, as it is similar to that observed with the onset of a seizure. Craig’s ambition knows no bounds: he finished his talk with musing on whether he could fit a killer whale into his brain scanner!

The impact of stress on emotional memory in rats

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The final speaker was me, Dr Anjanette Harris. I’m a post-doctoral researcher from the laboratory of Megan Holmes at the University of Edinburgh. I want to understand how stress affects brain function. This is particularly tricky to study in humans, especially if we want to look at the effects of early life stress on the brain, so we use rats (read more on the importance of using rodents in psychiatric research in my previous blog post). The work that I presented uses the technology of Craig Ferris coupled with memory exercises for rats that we specialize in designing. We have shown that rats that experience stress in early life form stronger memories of unpleasant experiences. These rats also have stronger activity in brain areas involved in fear when recalling unpleasant experiences in adulthood. This mirrors what is found in humans and means that we may be able to test potential therapies for human memory disorders on rats, ensuring that the treatments target appropriate areas in the brain.

Practical Innovations in Life Science Education

By Nick Freestone, Kingston University

On 27- 28 April, The Physiological Society held a workshop under the auspices of the Education and Teaching Theme. The workshop was held at The Society’s HQ, Hodgkin Huxley House, and in somewhat of a departure for such an event, extended an invite to those unsung heroes of the Higher Education environment – technical support staff.  Thus, in the weeks leading up to the event, to encourage participation from this under-represented group (in The Physiological Society participation terms anyway) various inducements were proffered to our technical colleagues. Primary amongst these was the offer of an all-expenses paid trip to London contingent upon the submission of an abstract as a prelude to a poster presentation at the event itself. Who could refuse such a generous offer?

Equally heartening from the point of view of your cynical correspondent was the presence of a number of new faces to the physiological pedagogical arena. This served to greatly enliven the proceedings and ensured that the event wasn’t merely an echo chamber reverberating to the well-worn axioms of the usual suspects.

Happily the event kicked off with lunch, which served as a great prompt for punctuality. This was followed by Session 1 chaired with great aplomb by Sarah Hall (Cardiff University) where the audience was blown away by fantastic contributions from Iain Rowe (Robert Gordon University) on teaching pharmacokinetics, Viv Rolfe (University of the West of England) on Open Educational Resources, Michelle Sweeney (Newcastle University) on the use of LabTutor and our very own Derek Scott (Aberdeen) on developing a renal physiology practical for large groups – no urine required!.

This left the audience so energised that a refreshment break was necessary to recover. After this much-needed pause, Session 2 included contributions from Frances Macmillan (University of Bristol), on developing experimental design skills in first and second year students and Rachel Ashworth (Queen Mary University of London) on using technology to teach respiratory physiology from a clinical perspective.

Given so much food for thought it was an opportune time for the participants to form smaller discussion groups facilitated by the Education and Teaching Theme Leads and tireless organisers to discuss a variety of questions posed by The Physiological Society around the general question of “how can The Society help?”. Having set the world to rights in this format, and having provided The Physiological Society with an extensive to-do list, heroically noted down in real time by Chrissy Stokes, the formal part of the day was rounded off by a message from our sponsors, ADInstruments, who reported on upcoming initiatives involving their widely used educational wares. Rather more informal was a wine and poster session which melded seamlessly into a later gathering at a local hostelry.

Day 2 kicked off with a plenary lecture by Peter Alston of Liverpool University. While Peter is not a physiologist, his talk, “Technology-informed curriculum design” was received with rapt attention by an appreciative audience. At this stage of the proceedings, Professor Judy Harris (Bristol University) exerted her considerable crowd control skills and marshalled the next batch of contributions expertly and smoothly. These included talks from Dave Lewis (University of Leeds) on Open Educational Resources, Hannah Moir (Kingston University) who did a livestream of her lecture to us to her own students via an app called Periscope (Think about that for a while! Hannah lectured to us, whilst showing students that she was lecturing to us whilst giving us a demonstration of a technique to enhance student engagement. There’s too many layers there for me to unpack into a coherent story!), Louise Robinson (Derby University) and our very own Sheila Amici-Dargan on how online tools can be used to enhance the learning and teaching environment. Louise Robinson’s talk deserves a special mention here covering as it did a topic close to my own heart, lecturing using gamification techniques. This caused an appreciative hubbub from the assembled throng.

Now if you thought gamification was a bit outré in the august setting of The Physiological Society HQ then you would have been astonished by the contribution of Emma Hodson-Tole (Manchester Metropolitan University) who gave a talk on teaching physiology through the medium of interpretative dance!

I told you this was a different kind of conference. This presentation, in the batch of talks after refreshments, focussed on motor neurone disease and provided evidence on how learning can be facilitated across different groups using unconventional teaching techniques. Other talks in this section included my own (Kingston University) on Outreach and Public Engagement by the use of a “Lab in a Lorry”-initiative funded by HEFCE, and Dawn Davies (Bristol University) who talked about her work using patient simulators in public arenas such as shopping centres. This looked fantastic, if rather daunting fun!

Now I started off talking about how this wasn’t your usual run-of-the-mill academic event, with the old hands nodding sagely while trying not to fall asleep after lunch. No! This event included actual live students! These were Patrick Evans and Elodie Cox also of Bristol University (Judy’s enthusiasm for learning and teaching is obviously infectious). Their talk “Engaging the public with final year undergraduate projects” definitely proved one thing once and for all. Our students are a FANTASTIC resource, capable of giving much better talks than even the most seasoned academic. Suitably humbled and chastened by this demonstration of youthful excellence, the excited crowd networked over lunch whilst perusing some of the items of equipment one can put on the road in a “Lab in a Lorry”.

Feedback from the event was uniformly and overwhelmingly positive. Ideas are being gestated as we speak as a result of this inspirational event. Watch this space for more positive, energising educational stuff in the near future.