Thursday, 29 May 2008

Forget the hands, the future is in your cerebellum

The brain is a masterpiece of neurological wiring, a mysterious, convoluted mass of matter that manages to somehow think, recall and control the human body. In many areas, the function of the brain remains a mystery. Now scientists have found the part of the brain that can predict your future.

Imagine part of your body is constantly moving. The countless receptors that contribute to your senses can detect where you are, but as clever as your brain is, this information will take a small amount of time to be computed. It has to be encoded so that it can be transmitted from the sensor along a nerve to the brain, which might be a good metre or more away, and then decoded. By the time you know where you are, your motion has taken you further, so you are no longer where you think you are.

To compensate, scientists have predicted that part of the brain can integrate up-to-date positional information with the motion commands it gave to that body part, prior to receiving ‘afferent’ information from sense receptors. In other words, by adding together where you were with what direction you are going, it can compute where you are, before it knows for sure.

This ability is known as state estimation. It is what stops you from knocking over your mug of coffee in the morning — when reaching for your daily dose of caffeine you want to stop just before you reach the handle, rather than waiting for your fingers to say that you’ve arrived. Otherwise, that’s today’s crossword ruined.

Until recently, there had been no direct experimental evidence to pinpoint the part of the brain that is responsible. Indirect evidence, as determined from patients with lesions in particular parts of the brain, suggested that it was the role of the cerebellum, a brain region already known to play a part in sensory perception and motor control.

To test this, Chris Miall of the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham, and colleagues, designed an experiment to directly manipulate the cerebellum during a simple movement task. To describe it sounds like a horror scene from a science-fiction novel: participants have a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) device — in essence a very large electromagnet — strapped to their scalp, and their head is trapped between a chin rest and a rigid metal frame. Wearing goggles and with a computer sensor strapped to their finger, the subject begins to resemble a cyborg, the inner workings of their brain subject to manipulation from the machine.

The actual explanation of the study is somewhat less melodramatic but equally as enthralling. TMS creates rapidly changing magnetic fields which are directed to a focal point — in this case the cerebellum — to depolarize brain neurons and consequently induce electric currents.

Participants were asked to move their hand in a straight line until a random cue signified that they should make a rapid movement up and left to point at a predetermined virtual target, which was created by mirrors reflecting a high-tech yellow and pink earplug. After a few practice runs, the goggles went opaque and the trials in essence became blind.

In half of the trials, three pulses of TMS were triggered shortly after the ‘go’ cue. Each pulse lasted 50 milliseconds — that’s one twentieth of a second.

Miall’s team believe that by using this technique, they disrupt state estimation by the cerebellum. Consequently, when the participant reaches for the target their motion is based on out-of-date information.

“By zapping the cerebellum with TMS we recorded systematic deviations in subjects' trajectories,” says Owen Cain, one of Miall’s team. “This effect was localized to the cerebellum: stimulation of other brain areas (such as the motor cortex) gave much smaller deviations. These deviations were not random: subjects moved their hands as if they were where they had been 100 milliseconds in the past. In other words, they were planning their trajectories based on out-of-date information.”

Their study implies that TMS might be highly useful in future experiments to directly test brain function. “The thing about TMS is you can use the subject as their own control: when TMS is on, the part of the brain that it is stimulating is off, and vice versa. That's very useful when you want to know what that part of brain is doing.” The functions of the brain might not remain mysterious for long.

Miall, R. C., Christensen L. O. D., Cain O. & Stanley J. Disruption of State Estimation in the Human Lateral Cerebellum. PLoS Biol 5 (11), e316 (2007). doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050316
This is available to download for free from

Quotes come from conversations with Owen Cain, and detailed descriptions of the experimental set-up come from first-hand experience: I am one of the forty-five participants of the trials.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Budapest v. három

WE finally arrived at the Hotel Aquarius at about 2pm the following day. Our flight to Vienna had gone smoothly but, perhaps predictably given our poor luck thus far, the connecting flight to Budapest was delayed. The plane was apparently experiencing technical errors. In the distance, something was aflame. Things did not bode well.

Our hotel, with its shoddy trees and spangly water, was 7km outside of the centre of Budapest. Poor planning on our part there then. Travel to the centre was easy enough, hopping on bus #3 from the Nagytétény stop, just outside the hotel, all the way in. After a quick nap we did just that, heading for a restaurant that had received good press in our guidebook. It really was quite spectacular.

The Giero restaurant was a small, family run business. By small, we mean it had the sum total of 3 tables. Situated in a bunker off a dingy backstreet, it's not quite tourist territory. However, the friendly lady, who is the waitress, head chef and granny-in-residence all rolled into one, ushered us to our table. We had the pick of the lot; apparently it was a slow night due to the football. Nestled in our corner, she offered us tonight's selection. Basically we had to have what she was cooking, but there were no complaints there as it all sounded delicious. While she made our dinner, we admired the rustic decoration of our cellar. It was very... Hungarian. As was the food, as reiterated by our chef every 2 seconds. "This Hungarian soup... this Hungarian meat... these Hungarian potatoes...." etc. The only things that weren't Hungarian were the cutlery and the tumblers, which were all from Ikea. The toilet was handily situated in a small cupboard opening off the main restaurant, concealed by an old curtain.

The highlight of our evening arrived halfway through Simon's (Hungarian) egg soup. Two rather large Roma men entered and tuned up their respective instruments. One sat behind what we suspect was a cimbalom, and the other brandished a violin. For the next 2 hours, they proceeded to serenade us, and only us, with their mix of Hungarian traditional music and well known classics such as "Dream a little dream of me". Unique and utterly charming.
Although we were enjoying ourselves greatly, we were also exhausted from our travelling, and the time came for bed. However, still being the only patrons, we were in the awkward situation of not only having to leave mid-song, but also having to leave the musicians with no audience to play to. We felt less bad about this after being coerced into buying their CD (but I managed to haggle with them a little bit- it was twice the price of our meal!) and buying them a round of Hungarian shots. After a nice chat with the violinist (in German) and an embarassing rendition of Happy Birthday, Hungarian style (naturally), we made our exit.

An hour, 2 trams and a bus later, we were finally back at the Hotel Aquarius. It had been a short day in Budapest but a very memorable way to celebrate a birthday.

Budapest part kettő

Our hotel is ideal for:

· Individual and group tourists they want to discover all our city
· Local corporate guests and business travellers
· Long term guests with our comfortable rooms, apartments, variety of services and special rates
· Participants of trainings, seminars or conferences because of our excellent conference facilities and high standard rooms
· Guests they prefer active recreation because of the wide range of our wellness services ("The indoor building up of our hotel – with the feeling of our atrium swimming pool, with the peaceful silent of the spangly water and the restful spectacle of our aquarium – makes not just our body fit for the following pleasant experiences, but eases and switches off our overstressed minds.") and sport possibilities of the neighbourhood
· Family events (wedding ceremonies, receptions, anniversaries) because of our excellent cuisine and banquet services
· Garden parties with music and dance events in our silent garden surrounded by shoddy trees and on the terrace
· Enthusiasts of the Hungarian wines and sparkling wines
· Gourmets
· Guests they prefer to stay in a friendly atmosphere at convenient prices

How could we resist staying at the Aquarius Hotel, with a description like that??

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Budapest diary egy

GOODNESS me, Terminal 5 is a bit fancy, isn't it? All that glass, the swish technology, the signs pointing in the wrong directions...

I do like Terminal 5. For all its extravagance, the one thing that appeals the most cannot be produced by wealth and pomposity. I don't need a Harrods in an airport terminal, and I'm just as happy to go to Upper Crust as I am to Wagamamas. No, what I like about Terminal 5 is the atmosphere - this is a spacious and light building, and most important of all, it is relaxed. Nobody is in a hurry, nobody in a panic.

It is 9pm. Our direct flight to Budapest, which was supposed to take off forty minutes ago, has just been cancelled. In British Airway's defence, it isn't their fault. Air traffic control problems over Maastricht have thrown European flights into disarray. I've gone to fetch the bags, Rachel has gone to negotiate a new flight.

It is 10.30pm. We're sitting in Rachel's kitchen, with new flight passes and an horrific 3.30am start ahead of us. At 6am we will finally be off, with Austrian Airlines this time, to Budapest via Vienna. We should be in Budapest by now, sipping champagne (possibly) on our hotel terrace. Instead, we're in Buckinghamshire. Ho hum.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Go Go Gadget Mario Kart Wii

I WAS on a train. That much was fact. Where the train was going, and where it might stop, these were details that remained less than certain.

So it was that myself and a nice chap from Buxton (of water fame) came to be sitting in First Class of a Virgin Pendolino, despite not being in possession of First Class tickets. He had been to London for the day for a work meeting in the wine bar Vinopolis, having been to Hemel Hempstead the day before for the same reason, commuting every day from Buxton. Tomorrow he would be returning to London. I think he had been enjoying it until the signal failure at Milton Keynes, which threw the entire Virgin Trains network into disarray. For this reason I had had to board this train also, knowing simply that it was going North. It was tentatively listed as bound for Manchester Piccadilly, but since the train I was supposed to catch had disappeared from the departures board at Euston (not cancelled, it simply ceased to exist), such details were far from trustworthy.

Three hours after my intended arrival time, my second train of the evening pulled up to Chester train station with a very weary Simon inside. I had waved goodbye to my friend from Buxton at Stockport and immediately made a new friend, a student from Knutsford who was studying in Chester. We talked about many things on the journey, from sea snakes in Fiji to the class system in Cheshire.

"I'll tell you something about Chester," he said to me as we walked towards the exit at Chester. "It was beautiful until they moved all the Scousers in."

Chester, I might add, is still beautiful. I was here to visit my sister, who lives next to a windmill and has befriended every cat in the city. I had a wonderful weekend, and below are a few stories of my time there.


It didn't take long to fire up the Wii. Ever since the launch of the Wii I have been taunted with two basic facts: I can't afford one, and my sister has one. Not only that, but she has Zelda: Twilight Princess. Amazingly, despite my constant desire to acquire one, I had up until this weekend never played on one, so after an initial catch-up and a bite to eat, we were playing virtual tennis and some very silly games on Wii Play. I loved it.


Chester Zoo holds a special place in Jo's heart. She worked there for eleven months as a monkey - sorry, research assistant - and she seizes every opportunity to go back. On this particular occasion she reveled in showing me around, as this was my first ever visit. We marvelled at the size of the elephants, cooed at the coatis, and giggled at the meerkats, my favourite animal in the zoo. We also saw Margaret, the baby giraffe.

Somehow I had become a good luck charm that day. Where normally a visitor might be lucky to see one of the jaguars in their enclosure, on this day we saw all five; from mother and child play-fighting to posers and layabouts and the majestic Pelé, a black jaguar with his very own private jungle. They truly were beautiful creatures.

In the Realm of the Red Ape, a baby orang-utan kept everybody's attention, but it was the elder ape who caught my eye. At the base of the enormous enclosure, the orang had clearly spotted some source of sumptuous food, and was collecting available sticks to poke through the fence to hook it towards them. Starting with a simple twig, over the few minutes I was watching the tools got bigger, until the ape was forcing half a tree through the fence. I don't know if they succeeded. Nonetheless it was very exciting to watch primate ingenuity in action. In the monkey section, I failed miserably to beat a baboon at a simple coordination task: fifteen seconds to get the nut? You're having a laugh!

The good luck continued as the otters were out, looking far too cute for their own good and following us around their enclosure. The spectacled bear was also on show, the okapi had an identity crisis (is it a giraffe, is it a zebra?), the warty hog received an appreciative giggle, the komodo dragon was being lazy and a capybara got stuck in a tub while we watched on.


I was rubbish at Sonic And Mario At The Olympics, overly adventurous on Super Mario Galaxy, but could eventually hold my own on Mario Kart Wii.


We visited Chester itself on Sunday, stopping off in the Japanese shop in The Rows and the sweet shop beside the Cathedral. Down by the Dee we walked into the Roman gardens (first giving way to a squirrel) and dreamt of the time when the Romans first built the city, intending to make it their capital on the British Isles (or Britannia, if you will). The ruins were a delight, as all ruins are to me, and moving around the city wall continued to bring surprises. The city is a constant stream of wonderful architecture, and the cloudy skies could do nothing to dampen my spirits. If only the street artist drawing Doctor Who-themed scenes of Chester had been there that weekend, too.


By a stroke of luck, we got 50% off of our bill at La Tasca.


I herded some goats on Zelda: Twilight Princess. It was ace.