Thursday, 24 April 2008

In Search of Memory

ERIC Kandel is a quite remarkable man. At 78 years old, he says, his career has only just begun. A Nobel prize, award-winning books and countless scientific publications behind him, he has hope for the future of the study of the brain and memory. He can also lay claim to the most magnificent bow tie in science.

On Tuesday, I attended a talk by Kandel entitled "We are what we remember: memory and the biological basis of individuality", held at the Royal Society. Ah, the Royal Society! How great it was to be back there - a building of such history and importance; of such grandeur, too, with it's marble designs, DNA-helix door handles and secret passageways (shh... I didn't mention them!). It was a fine, sunny London evening, and here I was in the most important academy of science in Britain, the Commonwealth and, arguably, the world.

The talk began by addressing the 'systems problem' of memory: where in the brain is memory stored? The first person to seriously consider this was Francis Josef Gall (1768-1828), who declared that all mental functions derive from the brain and that the cerebral cortex is more than just one organ. Therefore, different localities in the brain have different functions. His hypothesis was that the front of the brain is responsible for intellectual functions, the back for instincts and the middle for sentimentality. In addition, Gall believed that bulges of the skull encased enlarged regions of the brain - thus the wisest menfolk had ballooning foreheads and the kindest, most considerate mothers had large, bulbous backs to their skulls (and horrendous, matron-like haircuts to boot).

Gall's weakness was a distrust of (or disinterest in) direct study. Thus when Marie Jean Pierre Flourens (1794-1867) removed the "romantic love" centre from mice brains in 1823, and discovered that this had no effect on the rodent's ability to, er, get amorous, Gall's conclusions were placed in doubt.

Along came Pierre Paul Broca (1824-1880), who believed that brain function was proportional to the phrenology of brain convolutions rather than bumps on the head. His study of Leborgne's brain - an aphasic patient who could understand but not articulate (he could whistle, so his vocal chords were fine); who could use his hands but not write - revealed an area of the brain responsible for the expression of language. This he modestly named the Broca's area.

Meanwhile, Carl Wernicke (1848-1905) found another part of the brain which, when damaged, had the opposite effect: ability to express language but an inability to process and understand it. This, too, was modestly named the Wernicke's area. And so we begin to build up a picture of how the brain functions, in this case with language: we listen and read to take in information that is processed by visual and aural regions of the rear cortex, we then use the Wernicke's area to understand it, and relay this information via the arcuate fasciculus to the Broca's area in order to repeat it, making good use of the nearby motor regions of the brain.

Now, where was I? Ah yes, memory! Kandel did eventually get around to that, but this post is quite long enough already. May I direct you to where you should soon be able to listen to the rest of this excellent speech - and marvel at that bow tie.

Monday, 21 April 2008

"Sue Barker is gorgeous!"*

THE week had begun with very little in the way of energetic activity. Unless, of course, you count the walk to the pub. Yet here I was, surrounded by 46,000 people, all running for 26 miles and 385 yards.

This, of course, was the weekend of the London Marathon and I (in an uncharacteristic fit of charity and good will to all men) could be found standing on Tower Bridge cheering those 46,000 on, and in particular the British Heart Foundation 'Heart Runners'.

The marathon is not something I have ever really grasped before. To me, running for 26 miles on a Sunday morning has never held much appeal, but to be there, among that crowd, cheering on anyone and everyone for their efforts, I started to see. Running a marathon is an amazing feat, and the 1% of the British population who has ever run: you have my utmost respect.

I was more than a spectator this weekend, however. My cousin Graham was running for the first time. Armed with an estimated times sheet and a BHF supporters t-shirt, I attempted to follow him by foot and by train, planning to cheer him from the BHF stand at various mile points. Such plans were always doomed to fail, given that I had no idea what time he would cross the start line and that when holding a camera, especially in London, I have a tendency to wander. Thus, after parting company at London Bridge — Graham caught an overground train to the start line at Greenwich — I ran around the likes of the Scoop, Tower Bridge, City Hall and beyond into the delightful Wapping, with dozens of photos to show for it. And all before the race had begun!

After finally negotiating my way out of Wapping (a sign saying "Pirates" had rather thrown me off course), I returned to Tower Bridge to watch the lead women and the wheelchair race leaders, got distracted by taking photos of the Tower of London and then joined the BHF crowd to cheer on Graham and the other Heart Runners. The noise made by our team and the other charity stalls along the bridge was tremendous, bolstered by the resident band playing "Eye of the Tiger", its chorus a rousing symphony of saxophone and kazoo.

Unfortunately, it then started to rain. For a time I braved the weather — after all, getting a little bit wet is nothing compared to running a marathon — but it got very heavy indeed. Alas, with hindsight this was the very moment not to give up looking out for him, but give up I did. I went in search of warmth, shelter, somewhere to stand where a small child sitting on their parent's shoulders couldn't hit me with a flag announcing support for "Auntie Jane", and a nice cup of tea. The plan thus changed to find Graham as he passed Canary Wharf, so I hopped onto the DLR to the Isle of Dogs.

From here I saw Wonder Woman, a man running and juggling, Elvis (he had lost his wig since passing me on Tower Bridge), a shepherd with an inflatable sheep, a clown and a man running in only a Borat thong, but never my cousin. Despite other attempts along the route, it wasn't until the BHF after party on Northumberland Avenue that I got to catch up with him.

Here we rested. Embarrassingly, my day of supporting and sightseeing around the photogenic hotspots of the Thames bank had exhausted me more than a brisk jog around the city had of him. I was still sore from the 4-mile "short run" Graham had taken me on Thursday night, where we had left London behind us entirely and admired the rich and wealthy in their greenbelt mansions. It was more exercise than I was quite used to, but I felt extremely good for it afterwards, although walking down stairs proved tricky for a very long time!

This year was the 28th London Marathon. It is the largest annual fund raising event in the world. Congratulations to all involved, you are all heroes.

*The wording on one BHF Heart Runner's shirt to try and get on telly!

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Re: Not With A Bang But A Whimper

An important and positive development in the plight of the Tasmanian Devil.

I first discovered about the mysterious face cancer of the Tasmanian Devil when I visited the Australian state last year, and wrote about it here. It is thought that with no cure the species could go extinct within two decades. The case of Cedric is hugely significant.