Pint of Science – Time Flies: A Brain Perspective


On Wednesday 20th May, Professor Vincent O’Connor of the Southampton Neurosciences Group and senior lecturer in occupational therapy Dr Lesley Collier will be at The Red Lion, talking about their different approaches to looking at when the brain fails.

Prof Vincent O’Connor has a background in molecular neurobiology, and an interest in the molecular components of brain function. An important part of brain function is at the synapses, where neurons communicate with each other. This has very specialized features – cells at the connection have to “glue” together, which is done by adhesion molecules on either side that find each other in a specific way, that ensures that the right contacts are made with their corresponding contacts on the other side of the connection. There are classes of proteins made in the neuron that are sent to the synaptic compartment – about 7000 different types, only any 2 of which will come together.

Interaction between nerve cells, Vincent explains, is quite important in, or possibly even a fundamental aspect of, diseases involved with chronic neurodegeneration – the death of brain cells being the end of this process, which starts at a breakdown in the gluing at a synaptic connection. There is a further underlying complexity to this; losing one neural cell type can express one type of disease, and the balance of where things go wrong causes the disease to be expressed in different ways. This goes some way to explain why there are so many different psychiatric disorders. It’s incredible to contemplate that the brain works at all, and all automatically and incredibly fast, but it also helps you realise how things go wrong and why they go wrong in certain ways rather than others.

molecules being transmitted across a synapse connection
Representation of molecules being transmitted across a synapse connection

Dr Lesley Collier has a long background in occupational therapy, looking at the way disability, illness, or circumstances affect the way a person is able to do things, and finding ways for them to do the things that they enjoy the most. She says she has long had an interest in severe dementia, as it feels sometimes as though people suffering with dementia are put in care homes, and as long as they are fed and watered, forgotten about. Taking part in activities is what makes life meaningful to us, Lesley explains, “Whether you are fit and able, or someone with dementia or a brain injury, we have an innate desire to interact with our world and get pleasure from it”. Each of us has different needs – some people, referred to as “sensory seekers” need constant stimulation to keep them engaged, whereas others are “sensory sensitive” and need a quiet environment in order to focus. This has implications for things such as teaching practice in schools, where individual children require different levels of activity or sensory information to learn best.

The problem with dementia is that people suffering from it are sometimes overwhelmed with sensory information and expected to process it in the same way a healthy person would. So Lesley does research looking at whether if you modify the sensory demands placed on someone, their performance improves, even in simple tasks such as eating with a knife and fork, or putting on socks and shoes. She also does a lot of work with nursing homes and care homes in upskilling their staff, who are not necessarily qualified therapists or nurses themselves, as well as with the managers in looking at where the can modify areas of the home to make them quieter, for lower stimulation, and other areas for high stimulation.

An example of a sensory room in a care home
An example of a sensory room in a care home

Lesley tells me about a man she worked with, in his 70s, who had suffered a severe brain injury causing him to very distressed, pacing the ward, unable to speak or articulate his frustrations. Trying to find ways to reach him, they looked at sensory approaches, which were then mostly used for children with learning disabilities. They took him to a sensory room in a children’s unit, where once inside, he at first couldn’t walk due to the unsteady soft floor, so crawled around on his hands and knees – but he was calmer, could vocalise things, made eye contact, picked things up, smiled, and his whole interaction changed. Lesley and her colleagues managed to get one of the companies who build sensory rooms to create one at their hospital, made for adults. Since then she has worked in sensory approaches, and after a while left the health service and came to Southampton, where she continues her research alongside teaching students.

She also has a little exam advice for anyone who fidgets and has trouble focussing when trying to revise – try sitting on a gym ball whilst you read!

Unfortunately this event is now sold out, but Lesley and Vincent will be at The Red Lion on Southampton High St on Wednesday 20th May.

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Physics student and regular freelance science communicator, shooting for the stars. I'm your Science Editor and with the help of a team of talented writers, strive to bring you the most interesting and relevant science stories.

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