Tuesday 15 March 2005
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Experiment of the month – Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience

Research at UCL, from neuroscience to linguistics, is often based largely on experiments involving willing volunteers, and departments across the university are recruiting people to join in on their experiments. The intrepid Clare Bowerman, UCL Communications Manager, ventures boldly into the lab for a first-hand look at what it's like to be a participant in an experiment…

Clare before, during and after the MRI scan

Clares view
“My first experiment was held at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (ICN), an interdisciplinary unit at UCL which studies how mental processes relate to the human brain in health and disease. Dr Jon Simons, Senior Research Fellow at the ICN, along with Dr Sam Gilbert is leading research into memory, in collaboration with Dr Paul Burgess and Professor Chris Frith. Jon explained he’d be monitoring my brain activity while I answered the apocryphal ‘simple questions’.

He then showed me to an MRI scanner – a large, cylindrical-shaped magnet that uses a powerful magnetic field to scan any part of the body in great detail; in this case, the brain. I didn’t have to don a green robe before getting into MRI scanner, but I had to remove anything metal before I went for the scan; jewellery, piercings, keys, coins (and even underwired bras) could all interfere with the results, or even be attracted towards the scanner under the force of the magnetic field, putting me off the tests a bit. 

While the scanner made loud, clanking noises round my head (slightly alarming but, as I was reassured, completely painless/harmless) I looked at a computer screen in the scanner and answered questions using a touch button. First of all, I was asked to count how many letters were in the second word of a series of well-known word pairs, when the word was either present or I had to imagine it (apples & pears, Bonnie & ? …). Afterwards, I was played back the word sets on the screen, and had to answer whether or not I thought I had seen or imagined the second word of each pair, and whether each had been displayed on the left or right hand side of the computer screen. It was harder than it sounds (although maybe that was just me). The session rounded off with a ten-minute scan of my very own brain to take home and, presumably, print on a mug to give to my relatives.  It was a relief to see there is at least something between my ears.”

Dr Sam Gilbert and Dr Jon Simons
Dr Sam Gilbert and Dr Jon Simons

Dr Simons view
How would you describe your work in simple terms?
I am interested in how we remember events that we experience in our everyday lives. For example, why is it that we are able to remember some past events clearly, with all sorts of associated details about the context in which they occurred, but others only vaguely if at all? We think that the frontal lobes of the brain play an important role in this ability, which may be a part of the rich conscious experience that makes us uniquely human.

So why are you doing this particular test?
The aim of this experiment was to understand the frontal lobe contributions to remembering events that were imagined versus those that actually occurred. This is important for refining our theories about which regions of the frontal lobe are involved in making specific memory judgments, such as “did I actually experience something in the external environment, or did I just imagine it internally?”

What do you think you’ll find out from these experiments?
We think that a region at the very front of the brain, known as brain area 10, might be central to such judgments between internally-generated and externally-derived information. Interestingly, there is evidence that this region may be one area of the brain that shows changes in people with schizophrenia, a psychiatric disorder in which people often have difficulty discriminating between information that was perceived from the external world and information that might have been internally-generated. This difficulty may be critical to the delusions and hallucinations that are typically seen.

What does my brain do when I answer the questions?
We are still analyzing the data from the experiment you took part in, but typically regions of your brain (eg the frontal lobes) work harder and use up more oxygen when you are engaged in a demanding task such as remembering word pairs.  We can measure this change in oxygen use and show, for example, that different sub-regions of area 10 might be involved at different stages of the memory retrieval process.

What’s in it for me?
Our research is supported by the Wellcome Trust, who are kind enough to provide all our volunteers with up to £30 to cover their expenses (in the interests of journalistic integrity Clare will be donating funds to charity or refusing them). In addition, participants can be satisfied in the knowledge that they have helped advance our scientific understanding of what it is to be human!

Are there any side effects to doing the experiment?
No. The only risks to anyone undergoing an MRI scan relate to the strong magnetic field involved, which means that people with implants such as cardiac pacemakers, cochlear implants, etc, cannot be scanned. Apart from the risk associated with metal, there are no known after-effects of participating.

So am I average?
You actually did very well at remembering whether you imagined words or whether you saw them!  Generally, we design our tasks to be sufficiently difficult that people will fail to remember a number of the word pairs. We can then examine brain activity that differs between successful and unsuccessful memory, which we couldn’t do if everybody got everything correct.

What’s your all-time favourite experiment?
The experiment I like most was actually conducted by Dr Paul Burgess here at UCL. He was interested in understanding multitasking, the ability to perform more than one task at the same time, and how it was affected by damage to the frontal lobes of the brain. He realized that one of the best examples of multitasking is going to the shops with a list of things you need to buy, so he proceeded to take all the participants shopping in London and recorded their behaviour in great detail. The results provided a number of original insights into the processes underlying multitasking behaviour.

What do you like most about your job?
I very much enjoy the creative side of thinking up experiments to test a particular hypothesis that I’m interested in. I also get a lot of intellectual satisfaction out of trying to understand the results of the experiments, which aren’t always what I expected! Coming up with a plausible interpretation can often involve just as much creativity as thinking up the experiment in the first place…

Are you looking for further recruits?
We are always looking for participants for our experiments. Individual experiments vary, but taking part typically involves some kind of computerised task, often looking at words or pictures on a monitor screen and making decisions about them by pressing keys on a keyboard. Volunteers must be aged 18–35 years, be right-handed, with English as their first language. For more information, see our website.

If you would like to experiment on Clare, contact UCL Communications. To find out more about Dr Simons, use the links at the top of the article.


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