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Brain events at the Cambridge Science Festival - Week 1!

Leading scientists at the forefront of neuroscience discuss the latest research into hallucinations, dementia, autism, OCD and eating disorders as part of a series of events examining the brain at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival.

The Festival runs from 9th – 22nd March and presents a programme loaded with over 390 events, most of which are free. Other areas covered include the development of self, perceptions of reality, the adolescent brain, and the effects of music on the brain. Read more in the University of Cambridge press release here

All brain related events are listed below and please get in contact if your event is not listed. 

AI and society: the thinking machines

Monday 9 March: 7:30pm - 8:30pm

Mill Lane Lecture Rooms, 8 Mill Lane, CB2 1RX

Drones, driverless cars, films portraying robots that look and think like humans… Today, intelligent machines are present in almost all walks of life. So it is not surprising that people are wondering about our future and asking questions like Will artificial intelligence be superior to the human brain? Dr Mateja Jamnik, Computer Laboratory, answers this question from a scientific perspective and talks about building AI systems that capture some of our informal and intuitive human thinking.

Peter Pan and the brain: perspectives from neuropsychology and the history of medicine

Tuesday 10 March: 6:00pm - 7:00pm

Fitzwilliam College, Reddaway Room, Storey’s Way, CB3 0DG

Peter Pan and the Brain: Perspectives from Neuropsychology and the History of Medicine

What does Peter Pan have to do with cognitive psychology? What can Victorian theories of the brain tell us about Captain Hook? Dr Rosalind Ridley and Dr Sarah Green consider how neuropsychology and the history of medicine can work together to bring new light to the familiar tale.

Predictive brains, modelling minds, optimising mental functioning

Tuesday 10 March: 7:00pm - 9:00pm

The Lab, 90 Regent St, CB2 1DP

Cambridge Biomedical Campus on tour

According to contemporary neuroscience our brain is constantly building a model of the body and the world it inhabits. How does it do this? How does this help us think about our mental functioning and other minds around us? Join Dr Hisham Ziauddeen, Department of Psychiatry, to find out things go awry in mental illness.

CBU vision night: looking at the brain

Wednesday 11 March: 6:00pm - 8:30pm

MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, 15 Chaucer Road, CB2 7EF

The MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit (MRC CBU) is a leading research centre for advancing understanding of human cognition. We investigate fundamental aspects of brain function such as memory, attention, perception, language and emotion.

Alongside pure research we are active in translating research findings to improve health and wellbeing. This includes the development of psychological therapies for mood disorders, improving our understanding of cognitive problems in childhood, and optimising diagnostic and rehabilitative techniques for neurological conditions.

The first half of the evening will enable hands on experiments and demonstrations, and the second half will feature short talks by our scientists on their current research projects.

Please note: bookings are not required for this event. Please turn up on the night, maximum capacity 100 people.

Illusions and hallucinations: our tenuous group on reality

Wednesday 11 March: 6:00pm - 7:00pm

Babbage Lecture Theatre, (Through the Pembroke Archway), New Museums Site Downing Street, CB2 3RS

Perception is not a passive process. Professor Paul Fletcher, Department of Psychiatry, discusses how we construct our picture of reality using a combination of sensory data and stored knowledge. Usually, this strategy serves us well but it does not take much for the system to become perturbed and for us to create a reality that other people do not share.

Professor Paul Fletcher MB BS; PhD, FRCPsych, FMedSci
Paul Fletcher trained in medicine before specialising in psychiatry and then taking a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. He is the Bernard Wolfe Professor of Health Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge and received a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award in 2017. His clinical work is on Huntington’s Disease and psychosis.

Our vision and updates on research progress for dementia

Thursday 12 March: 4:00pm - 6:00pm

School of Clinical Medicine, Lecture Theatre 2, Addenbrooke's Hospital, CB2 0SP

Dementia is caused by illnesses that affect our brain from working normally. Such illnesses are Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body disease and other conditions affecting different parts of the brain. Dementia can affect people’s memory or thinking, and when it gets worse, it can reduce our ability to do everyday activities such as eating and drinking. Although dementia is very common, currently there is no cure.

In this meeting, we have invited researchers in the field of dementia research to speak and interact with the public. In the first half of this event, we have invited two renowned British experts in the field of dementia to provide the audience with an update on the research on dementia:

- Professor Ian McKeith from Newcastle University will be discussing the second most common type of dementia, Lewy Body Dementia, and other dementia.

- Professor John O’Brien from University of Cambridge, will talk about early detection of dementia and treating or preventing it early.

In the second half of the event, the audience will get a chance to speak to a small group of about 10 researchers and this is a good chance to understand more about the progress in different aspects in the research on dementia. The audience will be divided into small groups and there will be a researcher leading the discussion in each group. Each of these group discussions will last for about 15 minutes, and then the researchers will move on to another group. The discussion will be informal and interactive.

The event is funded and organised by Alzheimer’s Research UK East Network Centre - a leading UK charity that funds research on dementia.

Musical visions

Friday 13 March: 7:00pm - 10:00pm

West Road Concert Hall, 11 West Road, CB3 9DP

Music both powerfully and mysteriously evokes images, feelings, and visions in the listener, in some cases to the point of synesthesia. But how does it do this? What is happening to our brains when we listen to music?

Join the Cambridge Graduate Orchestra for an exploration of musical visions and human psychology. We start with a pre-concert talk on science and music, after which there will be a performance of Mendelsohn's colourful evocation of the Hebrides, his violin concerto with soloist Miriam Davis, and Dvorak's picturesque and pastoral 8th Symphony.


Genetics research in autism: ethical perspectives

Friday 13 March: 7:30pm - 9:00pm

Babbage Lecture Theatre, (Through the Pembroke Archway), New Museums Site Downing Street, CB2 3RS

Autism is seen through many lenses: as a difference and disability (both compatible with the neurodiversity view) and as a disorder and even a disease (both compatible with the medical view). Autism is caused by genetic predisposition interacting with environmental factors.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, co-leads a new Wellcome Trust study with the Sanger Institute, the Department of Paediatrics, and UCLA. The study is called Spectrum 10K.

Spectrum 10K will collect DNA and life-history information from 10,000 autistic people in the UK, to identify both genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the varied outcomes that different people have, with a view to ultimately improving their wellbeing.

During this event, Simon will be in conversation with Dr Varun Warrier, the geneticist coordinating Spectrum 10K, Dr Virginia Bovell, whose own research focuses on the ethics of autism, and who is also a mother of a young autistic man, and David Thorburn, a local parent who was recently diagnosed as autistic himself. Together, and with other members of the scientific and autism community, they will discuss the ethical issues, fears, and opportunities surrounding such research.

Don’t believe everything you see

Saturday 14 March: 9:00am - 5:00pm

Department of Psychology, Teaching Laboratory, Downing Street, CB2 3EB

How does the brain piece together information from the senses to interact with a rapidly changing world? This is a challenge for the brain that underlies important skills such as recognising friends, categorising objects, moving our bodies to interact with or avoid interesting or dangerous objects and working out where we are in the world. Visit our stall to find out how the brain puts it all together!

Find out more about the Adaptive Brain Lab on our website:

Opening a window into the brain

Saturday 14 March: 10:00am - 5:00pm

Department of Psychology, Teaching Laboratory, Downing Street, CB2 3EB

Using microscopes, get acquainted with the anatomical landscape of the brain and identify structures and neurons from individuals displaying addiction and compulsive behaviour.

This workshop will offer unique opportunities to get acquainted with the anatomical landscape of the brain using microscopic investigation of brain sections from individuals with a history of drug addiction or compulsive disorders.

By observing live both standard and fluorescent labelled brain sections you will learn about the functional anatomy of the brain and the neural basis of psychiatric disorders.

Children will have the opportunity to colour drawings of brain sections as well.

Maps in the brain

Saturday 14 March: 10:00am - 4:00pm

Plant and Life Sciences Marquee, Marquee on the Lawn, Downing Site, CB2 3EA

The hippocampal formation has been associated with a wide range of cognitive functions, including episodic memory, spatial navigation, scene imagination and future planning. Our exhibit shows how different neurons in the hippocampus work together to achieve these functions.

Discover more about the anatomic structure of the hippocampal formation and the various types of neurons that populate it. Take part in a short video game and guide a virtual rat as it explores different environments in order to understand how different hippocampal spatial cells work and take part in simple virtual reality scenarios in order to show how episodic memories are formed.

How babies brains learn to see

Saturday 14 March: 10:00am - 11:00am

Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, Physiology Lecture Theatre, Physiological Laboratory Downing Street, CB2 3DY

How do babies' brains learn to see in early life? How does what a baby sees shape the developing brain? Dr Susanna Mierau, Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, discusses how Nobel Prize-winning discoveries in the 1960s about vision development revolutionized our understanding of how the brain works. We also review fun activities that can be done with young babies to understand what they see and to develop the many skills necessary for vision.

Looking, learning and language

Saturday 14 March: 10:00am - 2:00pm

Department of Psychology, Teaching Laboratory, Downing Street, CB2 3EB

Make things happen with your eye movements and brainwaves! Join the Centre for Neuroscience in Education and find out how we use this technology to study how babies learn language.

We are interested in the neuroscience of education, with an overall goal of helping children overcome any psychological or neurological barriers to successful learning. Specifically, we aim to understand how the brain functions and changes during the development of language comprehension and production. Our stall will allow you to engage with some of our latest research in a practical “hands-on” manner. This will include:
• A wireless EEG cap that measures your brain waves in real time, and allows you to control a virtual box with your thoughts
• Tours to our “baby lab”, including a chance to try out our eye-tracker
• Videos of our infant participants carrying out our tasks
• A running presentation of highlights from our current research and our basic theory

For more information please see:

Become a neurosurgeon

Saturday 14 March: 10:00am - 5:00pm

Department of Psychology, Teaching Laboratory, Downing Street, CB2 3EB

Become a neurosurgeon and learn the procedure used to implant life-changing deep brain stimulating electrodes with researchers from the Department of Psychology.

• View videos of patients implanted with DBS electrodes which show the clinical efficacy of this treatment in several conditions. These videos allow discussion on the different brain areas involved in the symptoms of these pathologies and how the electrodes delivering pulses of current in other brain areas can restore the function of widespread neuronal networks.
• Take part in a pretend case study and use a question and answer decision tree to guide your determination of a particular part of the brain.
• Set up the coordinates of this targeted brain structure on a micromanipulator similar to those used in clinical settings. Lower an electrode and finally verify your diagnosis by the injection of a coloured dye into a jelly brain installed on a stereotaxic frame.

Neurons feel the force

Saturday 14 March: 10:00am - 4:00pm

Plant and Life Sciences Marquee, Marquee on the Lawn, Downing Site, CB2 3EA

How do brain cells explore their environment? It turns out they use simple physics! Play our interactive computer game and feel some realistic model tissues, and find out more about how cells use tissue mechanics to guide their growth and motion! With the Franze Lab.

Our stand will include:
1. informational posters describing the background of neurons and the brain and also the techniques we are using to study this
2. a computer game for learning how different organs have different characteristics
3. a hands-on area for testing out the difference between the stiffness of various organs in the body

Using two eyes to see the world in 3D

Saturday 14 March: 10:00am - 4:00pm

Plant and Life Sciences Marquee, Marquee on the Lawn, Downing Site, CB2 3EA

How do we perceive depth? Our brain combines information from both our eyes to see the world in 3D. Can other species with smaller brains also do this? Can we teach a computer to do the same?

The cuttlefish, a close relative of the octopus, stands out amongst invertebrates for its highly developed cognitive abilities. To test whether cuttlefish use 3D vision (aka stereopsis), we fitted them with “anaglyph” (red/blue coloured-filter) glasses. We created a 3D cinema experience to demonstrate that they are tricked by stereoscopic illusions just like us!

How I grew to see the world

Saturday 14 March: 11:00am - 5:00pm

Department of Psychology, Teaching Laboratory, Downing Street, CB2 3EB

“How I grew to see the world”: workshop for children and their families - participants make collages illustrating milestones of visual development and learn about BRIGHT ( research in Africa.
Participants make collages illustrating different milestones of visual development over the first year (ie light/dark vision , emergence of colour perception, depth perception etc). Activity likely to appeal to 5 – 12 year olds.
Alongside this activity we will have posters, videos and slides showing information about the global health project “Brain Imaging for Global Health” (BRIGHT), which is running in The Gambia, West Africa and here in Cambridge, to study early development across the first two years of life. This study measures brain development using near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) and electroencephalography (EEG), growth, health, diet and nutrition and general cognition (through activities and questionnaires).
Families can read flash cards about under nutrition and poverty research (ie the way in which families live in The Gambia, similarities and differences with the UK etc.) These will have Q and A style formats on each side of the card so that you can test each other on what you think you know about research, rural African living and how we study global health.
We will also have a lab room setup with the NIRS/EEG tasks used in the BRIGHT study for visitors to see how the technology works.

Anatomical models: an exhibition

Saturday 14 March: 10:00am - 4:00pm

Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, Anatomy Building Downing Site Downing Street, CB2 3DY

From digital brains to giant horse hearts to historical wax models to 'exploded' human skulls, anatomical models come in all types and have a lot to teach us. We invite you to a short tour of our most prized and representative human and animal anatomical models from our collection.

Visitor discretion advised!

The Brain as a prediction machine

Saturday 14 March: 3:00pm - 5:00pm

Department of Psychology, Nick Mackintosh Room, Downing Street, CB2 3EB

How does the brain really work? Cognitive Science has been swept away by the ‘Bayesian Brain’ hypothesis, which proposes that the brain is a prediction machine. We will introduce you to this revolutionary idea, and its fundamental implications for three domains of investigation of human behaviour. You will get to test the hypothesis yourself through a live experiment and brainstorm with us about its meaning in daily life outside the laboratory.

Meet the scientists

Saturday 14 March: 10:00am - 5:00pm

Sunday 15 March: 12:00pm - 4:00pm

The Guildhall, Market Square, CB2 3QJ

Got a question about cancer, nuclear energy, diet, primordial life, making medicines, your brain or something else scientific? Pop in to our science booth and have a chat with our scientists about their research. See the timetable on the day to find out who you can meet, when!

Pain and brains

Saturday 14 March: 10:00am - 5:00pm

Sunday 15 March: 12:00pm - 4:00pm

The Guildhall, Market Square, CB2 3QJ

How do we feel pain? How do painkillers work? How are potential new painkilling medicines tested? Discover some of the answers by taking the Cold Pressor test with scientists from Mundipharma, Napp and Bard. Then make one of our (in)famous brain hats to wear with pride!

The science of consciousness

Saturday 14 March: 12:00pm - 1:15pm

Department of Psychology, Lecture Theatre, Downing Street, CB2 3EB

Consciousness, as the platform for our experiences, is responsible for the most intimate and meaningful aspects of our existence. Philosophy has, for centuries, grappled with questions of consciousness, such as whether our minds are separate from our bodies, if our sense of subjectivity is a unique, unavoidable feature of consciousness, and, more recently, whether we are just a kind of computer. Dr Daniel Bor, Department of Psychology, argues that such debates hardly ever moved us forward, but that the science of consciousness, which he researches, is making rapid dramatic progress, and is starting to unlock perhaps the most important mystery remaining in biological science.

Physics of emergence in biological sciences and technology

Saturday 14 March: 11:15am - 12:15pm

Department of Engineering, Lecture Theatre 2, Trumpington Street, CB2 1PZ

A vertical pencil is unstable, it will fall over in a random direction, an example of symmetry breaking. Mechanical instabilities like these shape natural objects such as leaves, flowers, finger prints, guts or brains. Dr Alexandre Kabla, Department of Engineering, shows how controlling these instabilities offers new ways to design innovative materials and simpler manufacturing processes.

These simple rules sometimes lead to complex and rich behaviours; this is emergence. It is illustrated in the collective movements of animals, such as flocks of birds, or schools of fish. These ideas have unexpected applications in understanding animal development and cancer.

Brain Fizzing Facts

Saturday 14 March: 2:00pm - 3:00pm

Babbage Lecture Theatre, (Through the Pembroke Archway), New Museums Site Downing Street, CB2 3RS

Why is your elbow called your funny bone? How could you escape the grip of a crocodile’s jaw? Which animal breathes through its bottom? How do you block a tickle?! In this interactive quiz show, with fun experiments and live demonstrations, TV science expert and STEM Ambassador Dr Emily Grossman uncovers the answers to these and many more weird, mind-fizzingly awesome and funny science questions!

Discover neuroscience with CamBRAIN & PNN

Sunday 15 March: 12:00pm - 4:00pm

The Guildhall, Market Square, CB2 3QJ

Join CamBRAIN and Post Doc Neuroscience Network scientists to find out more about neuroscience and the brain. Make your own neuron: we each have a hundred billion neurons, what happens when they go wrong?

See here for all events taking place in week 2. 

Posted on 19/02/2020

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