Friday, 30 March 2012

Journalists and scientists debate about science communication

Science communicators are the link between the general public and scientific knowledge, they not only report about scientific findings but often shape people's opinions towards ethical, economical and political issues concerning science.

The stereotype of a scientist regarded as someone who is isolated and can not convey information in an understandable manner is still present today in the general public. On the other hand, scientists that participate in the media are not regarded seriously among their peers (scientists too have their own stereotypes).

Yet, the best science communicators have often been scientists, in the area of physics for example,  Richard Feynman was keen on popularising physics, he wrote books aimed to the general public and published his lectures for undergraduates, in the late 70s Carl Sagan co-wrote and presented the documentary series explaining the history of astronomy in Cosmos: a personal voyage, today the physicist Brian Cox frequently collaborates in BBC documentaries about physics.

Although universities and research institutions often have media offices that do press releases, media coverage and provide contact between scientists and journalists, scientists rarely have direct contact with the general public. In the last years, major scientific founding bodies such as The Wellcome Trust are making an effort encouraging scientists to communicate their work to non specialised audiences.

On the 13th of March The Royal Institution hosted a debate between scientists and journalists regarding science communication. The speakers that night were:
  • Alok Jha, science correspondent of The Guardian,  
  • Alice Bell, who teaches part time Science Communication in the Imperial College and also works for the BBC
  • Ed Yong who is an award winning science journalist
  • Chris Chambers who is a neuroscientist working in Cardiff University 
  • Ananyo Battacharya  chief on line editor of Nature News 
  • Fiona Fox chief executive of the Science Media Centre 
The talks covered mainly the job and role of science journalists and although I personally think there are some good science journalists, it was no surprise to find out that science communication is usually done by non-specialised journalists with a tight agenda and little time to do research on the topic they are writing about. Here is the video of the debate that followed the talks:

Alok Jha: Science and the Media - Discussion from The Royal Institution on Vimeo.

Today in the science section of The Guardian, James Ranson has published an article following the debate of the Royal Institution Should science journalists read the papers on which their stories are based?

James Ranson sent a survey to science journalists asking them how often did they read the original scientific paper they were discussing in their articles. Only journalists that claimed they did read the original scientific papers responded to the survey. Consenquently, when reading the Guardian article, the impression is that this is a general practise among journalist, yet when listening to the debate that took place in the Royal Institution on the 13th of March, it is clear that this is not the norm.

How can a journalist not consult the main source of their articles? How long can science journalists remain unspecialised? How can concepts that are not fully understood be properly communicated? How many stories can a science journalist cover properly in one day?

Science does not belong exclusively to scientists, it belongs to all. How long should scientists complain about bad science communication before doing something about it?

I would love to know your opinion about science communication, whether you are a scientist or not.

Monday, 26 March 2012

The neural basis of optimism

A question I have been asked in several job interviews, you might have been asked too, is "Where do you see yourself in five years?" I never understood the purpose of that question, finding it quite annoying. If I knew how to predict the future I would probably earn a living betting at horse races. After learning about Dr Tali Sharot's work, I finally understand what the interviewer was trying to find out: "Is the glass half full or half empty? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? "

Under the same circumstances an optimist and a pessimist extract different conclusions and decide to take different actions. This means that the subjective interpretation of reality affects the objective outcomes in the future. Optimists are less vulnerable to stress, anxiety and more keen to take actions than pessimists. Would you prefer to  have an optimist or a pessimist in your team? 

Neuroscientists have recently started to ask questions about what makes an optimist view the glass as half full: Are the brains of optimists different than the brains of pessimists? Is there a genetic predisposition for being  optimistic or pessimistic? Can we learn to be more optimistic?

Today, the curious neuron is talking to Dr. Tali Sharot and her team members, Neil Garrett and Caroline Charpentier to ask them about optimism. Tali Sharot has been looking for the brain activity that underlies the optimism bias, using the combination of both behavioral tasks and fMRI to unravel how an optimistic brain functions.

Tali Sharot explains that when estimating the future, the brain pictures an illusion of bright and magnificent events waiting ahead. This is called the optimism bias. The majority of people (a surprising 80%) overestimate the chances of positive things that might happen to them in the future and underestimate the negative ones. This optimistic expectations are primarily focused on themselves rather than on others.

When people are diagnosed with a serious disease, or are victims of violence, they tend to say: "Never thought that something like this would happen to me, because something like this only happens to somebody else..."

Tali's work is extensive, and cannot be covered properly in a blog post. If you want to find out more check the webpage The Affective Brain Lab in UCL. Here goes a brief summary of her findings for the curious neuron's readers:  

Tali, do you think optimism links to happiness? 

Optimism is not about happiness, it is related because anticipation of a good thing makes us feel good at a moment. Optimism is about expectations is very easy to measure and allows mathematical modelling. Happiness is very difficult to measure and hence to analyse.

Sometimes the anticipation of a reward is even better than the reward itself”.

        Human action is influenced by the expectancies of reward. 
 How does the brain increase these expectancies?  

According to Tali and her colleagues, through dopamine. 

Dopamine (DA) is a neurotransmitter that has a modulatory role in the subjective expectation of pleasure. It has been linked to drug craving and consumption. Tali and her colleagues in University College London wanted to find out if DA would also have an impact on subjective estimations of future pleasurable events. They asked subjects to choose from a list of vacation destinations where they would be happier to take their next vacation. They administrated L-Dopa (a drug that enhances DA function in the brain) in a group of subjects and found that there was an enhancement on the preference of their choice.

"Although DA did not increase the feeling of happiness it did enhance a prediction of pleasure for an imagined event". 

Understanding the biological traits that underlie optimism

In a study carried out at New York University, Tali and her colleagues tested how the brain processed positive and negative information, finding that there was a difference in the correlation of the activity of  the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (a cortex usually active in error detection) and the amygdala (involved in emotional processing). For positive information, the correlation was high, yet for negative information the correlation between the activity of these structures decreased. 

This led researchers to suggest that depression could be caused by a decrease in the regulatory effect between rACC over the amygdala. 

Tali, was it a surprise to find certain brain structures linked to optimism bias?

What is relevant is not which areas of the brain are involved in optimism bias, but rather that the activity of these structures is biased.

For example, it is quite known that the inferior frontal gyrus is related to error learning, but what's interesting is how it's activity is biased when processing negative information”.

How can the brain remain optimistic when exposed to reality?

In research also conducted in University College London (UCL), Tali and her colleagues studied if the brain would remain optimistic after being confronted with real information. In other words, how does the brain deal with negative information?  

Subjects were asked to estimate the likelihood of suffering negative events in the future. The list of these negative events included having cancer, Alzheimer's, or being robbed. The majority of subjects underestimated the probability these events might occur to them, with no effect of familiarity, arousal or past experiences.  Subjects were shown the real probabilities of these events. Subjects were then asked to repeat their estimations of each event. Researchers found that subjects were more accurate when the update was optimistic rather than pessimistic. The learning curve for positive information was steeper. Could the brain be processing negative and positive information differently?

When looking at the brain activity of the participants in the fMRI scanner, researchers found that the activity of the bilateral medial prefrontal cortex(mPF), superior frontal gyrus (SFG) and right cerebellum predicted the update of desirable information while the activity in the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) predicted the update in response to undesirable information.

Image of a sagittal section of the brain taken from a fMRI scan. 

Does the optimistic brain activity differ from the rest?

Although the majority of subjects had made optimistic predictions when estimating future negative events, certain subjects had been extra optimistic. The brain of the extra optimistic participants showed no activation of the IFG when confronted to undesirable information.

All subjects showed a similar pattern of brain activation for positive information, yet the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) of optimists' brain hardly activated when exposed to negative information. Leaving optimists hardly aware of negative information. 

How can people maintain their optimism bias even if there is no reward to it? For example, the chances of winning the lottery are very low. Yet there are people that buy a lottery ticket every day thinking that they might win the jackpot. Why is it that this behaviour is not extinguished?

People don't win the lottery but they see others that do, it's social learning. “I didn't win but I might win next time”. They overestimate the chances of winning the lottery. And yet when they see others suffering from cancer they think that the chances of that happening to them are lower than what they really are.

Optimism bias deals with possibilities, with estimates not with outcomes. It's unconstrained, once you have an outcome then it is different. Information that is unconstrained affects more when it's desirable than when it is undesirable. You learn faster when the information fits your optimism bias”.

The people that don't develop postraumatic disorder, would this people have more optimism bias?

Yes, they probably would. Optimism bias is a strategy to cope, it's like a psychological immune system.

Could you learn to be more optimistic?

Studies by Martin Seligman have demonstrated that even individuals who are vulnerable to depression can learn to be optimistic.

Optimists tend to be surrounded by people and have more social support, could it be because optimism is contagious?

It seems that optimism can be contagious. This is something that Fowler and Christakis are demonstrating through their work on social networks. They also proved that the chances of being obese  are higher if your friends are obese, being happy also is affected by the people that are happy around you. 

Tali is one of the few researchers I've met who has been brave enough to write a book for the general public. Tali's book got excellent reviews was selected as top ten reading from The Guardian. To find out more about the book: the optimism bias book. 

 You've written the book a about optimism bias, could you tell us a bit about it?

It was really nice to write, less constraining than writing a scientific paper, it gave me the chance to talk about other people's work and relate it to optimism bias. Although the book is targeted to the general public, scientists can also read it because it is accurate enough”.

Tali Sharot's book explaining the Optimism Bias

Why does the optimism bias have an adaptive function? Isn't it better to have a realistic estimation of your chances?

If you are mildly optimistic then it is adaptive, it pushes your chances further because it motivates you to act. Optimists are healthier and less vulnerable to stress and anxiety. Optimism stops being adaptive in extreme cases, when you underestimate your risks”.

How sophisticated is the optimism bias?

Animals have an optimism bias as well (Matheson et al., 2008; Mendel et al., 2009). It must be very basic, if we had a way of testing it, we would find it in many living organisms. 

Optimism bias has been shown in rats, dogs, rhesus monkeys and starlings. In an experiment involving starlings, Matheson et al, 2008 found that birds were more likely to interpret an ambiguous sound as related to a positive outcome when kept in enriched environments.  Sterlings that lived in non-enriched captivity conditions showed no optimism bias.

How important is having a sense of control over the future?

I think that having a sense of control generates optimism.

People who suffer depression have pessimistic thoughts, have no sense of control over what happens to them, no future planning, are less active and their health is affected”.

Since you are working on optimism bias,  have you noticed any change in the way you view life?  

My theory is that becoming aware of optimism bias doesn't make the bias disappear but it can led to do the actions that you need to protect yourself. For example, I have noticed that for a while I have been doing proper stuff, like wearing a helmet when riding a bike, going to all medical scan appointments, buying insurance for my computer...”

It is always interesting to find out what are the insides of an experiment like, so I dragged Neil and Caroline, members of Tali's team, to the cafeteria and asked them about their experience working in optimism bias.

Caroline Charpentier and Neil Garrett, members of Sharot's research group. 

What involves an experiment using behavior and fMRI? 

Usually there are several stages before participants are taken to the fMRI. There is a lot of previous pilot work, you want to make sure that you have a behavioral effect before doing the fMRI, which could not necessarily produce a clear neural activation to show in the fMRI. 

Designing a task to be carried out  in the fMRI scanner can be tricky, participants are under a big magnet and can't move from shoulders up, this is why tasks usually involve pressing buttons in a computer, with visual stimuli appearing in a screen. Auditory tasks can be a problem because the fMRI scan produces a lot of noise.

After the fMRI months of analysis follow. 

Where do you usually get volunteers for your studies?

"We usually recruit students as being on a university campus these are easy to come by. A criticism of fMRI studies is general is that they aim to find "an average person" which is difficult. Yet, so far the robust findings have been replicated". 

Preparing a subject for an fMRI scan 

Subject in the fMRI scanner

What do you think the optimism bias could be useful for?

As Tali says, it motivates you to keep striving in life but on the down side people take unnecessary risks like smoking and  underestimating your chances of getting cancer. 

Optimism bias is present in all ages? Is optimism bias related to hormone levels? 

"We are not sure yet. However studies on people's happiness suggest that people are happiest when young and old and less happy during mid life". 

Do you think there could be any hormone relation to optimism bias that could explain age differences? 

Neil says "I don't know about hormone levels really but there is research relating genetics, optimism and happiness, like the work by De Neve". 

Since you've are working on optimism bias have you noticed you have changed your habits at all? 

Caroline explains "I tried not to think about the effect, I had the feeling I was more pessimistic than normal by overestimating risks, so maybe I am not as optimistic as I should".

Neil adds "It's like an optical illusion, you can not stop yourself, even if you know about it, it's how your brain is wired".

Do you need an optimism bias to start a PhD? 

Neil and Caroline laugh"Maybe"

Neil points out that "Most projects underestimate the budget and the time it will cost to finish them". 

Could you think of any example of everyday life where you can find optimism bias? 

Neil comes up with a couple of interesting examples: "The financial crisis in 2008 is an example, as although everybody knew that stock market can go up or down, nobody thought that this would happen to them, and there was an optimism bias thinking that the stock market would always go up. 

"Setting yourself targets for work, you think you are going to accomplish all your tasks but you never do, and the next day you set high expectations over your productivity again. Although this probably is helping you to achieve more than you would if the your targets were not as ambitious". 

Caroline brings up an example of divorce rates "Couples that are getting married underestimate their chances of divorcing".

I would like to thank Tali, Caroline and Neil for their time and kindness, without them this post wouldn't had been published.


De Neve JM "Functional polymorphism (5-HTTLPR) in the serotonin transporter gene is associated with subjective well-being: evidence from a US nationally representative sample"
J of Hum Gen (2011) 56, 456–459

Fowler JH, Christakis NA "Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study" BMJ 2008 Dec 4, 337:a2338. 

Matheson SM, Asher L, Bateson M "Larger enriched cages are associated with optimistic response biases in captive european starlings (Sturnus vulgaris)"Appl Anim Behav Sci (2008)109:374-83.  

Mendl M, Burman OHP, Parker RMA, Paul ES. "Cognitve bias as an indicator of animal emotion and welfare: emerging evidence and underlying mechanisms" Appl Anim Behav Sci (2009) 118:161-181. 

Sharot T, Riccardi AM, Raio CM, Phelps EA. "Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias" Nature 2007 Nov 1;450(7166):102-5. 

Sharot T, Shiner T, Brown AC, Fan J, Dolan RJ."Dopamine enhances expectation of pleasure in humans" Curr Biol. 2009 Dec 29;19(24):2077-80. 

Sharot T, Korn CW, Dolan RJ "How unrealistic optimism is maintained in the face of reality" Nat Neurosci 2011 Oct 9; 14(11): 1475-9.

Sharot T. "The optimism bias" Curr Biol. 2011 Dec 6;21(23):941-5


Sharot T. "The optimism bias: why we're wired to look on the bright side" Ed. Constable & Robinson Ltd. 2012

Friday, 16 March 2012

Dissecting laughter

Humans display emotions that others can read and react to, amongst which smiling and laughter seem to be extremely contagious between individuals. Charles Darwin thought that laughter might have a bonding purpose for the survival of the group.

Neurology has began to take interest in "normal laughter" very recently, finding correlations between laughter, mental health and stress resilience.

Do animals laugh? It seems so, although it remains controversial, the wagging tail of a dog might be an expression of happiness, it is not regarded as laughter. Great apes display tickling-induced laughter that resemble human laughter and share phylogenetic origin.

What seems to be exclusively human is humour. Humour is cognitively complex, it changes with time (what was funny 20 years ago might not seem funny anymore), and because it is hard to define it is not very well understood.

To ask about humour and laughter, The Curious Neuron is meeting Steve Best.

Meeting Steve Best for breakfast

Steve Best is a professional stand up comedian who has performed extensively in the British comedy circuit and has ventured his slapstick humour and guitar around the world to delight audiences in South Africa, China,Thailand, Malasia, Bosnia and Italy. If you live in London, then you might want to go to the Soho Theatre this coming Monday 19th of March to see him on stage.

Steve discusses about what makes us laugh, how is life as a comedian, his projects and he spares a few tips for pubic speaking.

Is comedy related to happiness? 

"Performing comedy is not necessarily about happiness but the end result is to make people happy.

What makes one person laugh doesn't necessarily make someone else laugh, it is subjective. I wonder if there is something that makes everybody laugh. The audience is different even locally, I find that London is very different from Liverpool, for example. 

The type of public that comes to the show, even when I perform internationally, is English speaking.

The anglosaxon world has more tradition of stand up comedy, as in the rest of Europe I find that it is more theatre or cabaret based". 

Steve Best during a performance (image taken with permission from

How is the life of a comedian? how is a normal day for you?

"I think you have to treat it as a job, give yourself a 9 to 5 schedule to write, rather than wonder around the streets to find some inspiration or whatever.

Most people that are successful although talented, they must put work on it and treat it as a job.

What you want to do is get up in the morning, write all day and perform in the evening, but what most people do, including me some days, is get up in the morning, f**k around all day, and perform in the evening".

When a comedian is performing it looks as if it so easy for them, you would never expect that there is hard work behind what they are doing.

"The talented comedian gives the impression that their performance is coming out of them for the first time, as if it were improvised, when the truth is that it is always very well rehearsed. In order to make things appear spontenous and flowing you need to put a lot of practice and work in them.

I think nothing beats stage time: going out there and doing it! This is great about London, there is a great scene and a lot of chances to have stage time. 

There are three scenes out there: one that takes place in pubs where you hardly get paid but it gives you the chance to have stage time and perform. It is quite hard because usually the audience is small and made up of like minded people (comedians), who are there just to get better and to try out their stuff. 

The second scene is the working comedian's scene - getting decent money, by playing to a mixture of audiences, some are great but others are really hard, like the stag and hen nights, office parties, who are often drunk and unruly. 

The third scene is when you make it. The audience have come to see YOU. This last scene is the one every professional aims to be in". 

Steve Best in one of his performances (image taken with permission from

Steve and I discuss about what it takes to talk in public. As a scientist you have to get used to presenting your work in conferences and giving lectures in university, which can sometimes be quite hard. Some scientists start their talk using a couple of jokes, Steve says, with a grin in his face, "That's fine if they're comfortable with it, but often they are not and can be slightly embarrassing for all those concerned".

Any advice for public speaking? 

"There is a learning curve, and the more stage time you have, the better you get. The more you speak through it, the more comfortable it eventually feels. For example, timing is hard to learn, put is something you understand with stage time.

Being a bit nervous is not bad, it gives you adrenaline, you need to built up confidence and go to the stage.

The difference of performing compared to lecturing is that your feedback is immediate, you can hear people laughing". 

So is it good for a comedian to have his friends in the audience to start the laughter and warm up the environment?

"Although it might be good to have your friends in the public, some performers find that this makes them more nervous, so it depends, it can go both ways.

There are stories, although I'm not sure how true they are, about some singers,  like Frank Sinatra,  who would put his groupies in the audience to start a reaction. They would start screaming to induce the rest of the audience to scream too". 

How do you deal with critics? Are you self-critic?

"Yes I can be. I am writing a lot lately so don't get to perform so much. I am enjoying performing a lot now, because I don't get much of it. There has to be a balance.

I don't think anybody is really comfortable with critics. If you believe the good critics you also have to believe the bad critics.

The figure of the critic is a bit dodgy since comedy is so subjective, it is difficult to understand their criteria to grade an act, and it seems they have their own agenda. It affects you, they can very personal. Although I generally get good critics, I am not very comfortable with them.

The good thing about being a comedian is that you get the laughter as an immediate response to the act, so you are getting the feeling if its working or not. Once you are known it doesn't matter as much, you have an audience, people have come to see you".


Which stand up comedians inspire you?

"Eddie Izzard he is extraordinary, at the begining of my career I used to be very influenced by him and his style, he is really good. He has changed the way stand up comedy work, a lot of people copy his style of mumbling, stampering, which gives the sense that he is improvising as he goes.  

I also like Steve Martin, he used to be a stand up comedian too, very visual, very slapsticky. Bill Hicks, who focused on politic themes, he was a master at conveying his message to the audience, he was fantastic. 
Frankie Howerd was like a magician, it looked as he was saying things that were coming from the top of his head. He used to mutter, and apparently he even rehearsed every muttering"

Photo of Steve Best during one of his performances (image taken with permission from
Is there plagiarism between stand up comedians?

"To tribute someone, when it's properly acknowledged, is fine. What is the different is to steal somebody's elses jokes.  

Plagiarism is very hard to fight. There is no copyright on jokes, they are just words. Scripts are different as they can be copyrighted, so it doesn't happen as much.

In the circuit people do not steal jokes because they all know each other. Sometimes people steal the essence, when you start out is excusable as you are easily influenced while trying to find your own voice, but then when you find your own style is different. If you copy, it gets around very quickly.
The mainstream circuit has sometimes stolen jokes from the alternative circuit and it is difficult to defend yourself from this. 

Your act has to be genuine, it has to come from somewhere. If you are in the circuit you generate your own material, when you are really famous you might have writers who work for you".

How is life outside office hours?

"At parties I don't generally say what I do.  There are certain characters that don't switch off. They try to practice material in the middle of a normal conversation, this can get quite annoying". 

What makes comedians laugh?

"As a comedian you end up laughing less, it's a bit unfair because the spontaneus laughter is gone. When you watch somebody being funny you see the tricks behind the magic.

Sometimes we get together, six comedians playing poker is a weird thing to watch, you know the boundries, you know where to tickle, and yes we laugh".

The comedians Mike Gunn,  Mark Billingham, Otis Cannelloni, Huw Thomas, Mark Maier, Addy Borgh playing a poker game (image taken with permission from

What projects are you working on at the moment? 

"My best friend and business partner Simon Minty and I are currently writing scripts for sit-coms. We are applying for council grants at the moment for our project that would start in October.

Simon and I know each other from school. 

I am also co-producing and co-direcing Abnormally Funny People with Simon". 

Photo of Simon Minty (image taken with permission from

Abnormally Funny People?

We started this project 7 years ago, went to Edinburgh to perform. I have been co-producing and co-directing "Abnormally Funny People Ltd.” with Simon since.

Abnormally Funny People is formed by a a group of comedians that have a disability, except for one person who is a “total non-dissable person”, which is me actually. 

We got together through Simon, who is a small person, was asked to put a show together. I knew some people from the Comedy Circuit: Steve Dave who is deaf or Chris McCausland who is Simon took care of the business bit and I took care of the comedy bit.

The show is very successful, it has done 4 or 5 seassons at the Soho Theatre, and is still running. We are currently doing the show on a monthly basis, we are performing this coming Monday 19th of March, come and see us!".

Publicity shot for Abnormally Funny People (image taken with permission from


Wild B, Rodden FA, Grodd W, Ruch W "Neural correlates of laughter and humour"Brain (2003) Oct;126(Pt 10):2121-38. 

Ross MD, Owren MJ, Zimmermann E "The evolution of laughter in great apes and humans
Commun Integr Biol. (2010) Mar;3(2):191-4.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Studying the galloping horse today


This is the third of three posts about the study of movement. From the early photography pioneers to neuroscience today.

                                                 Inventing precision instruments 

In the mid-19th century, medical diagnosis relied greatly on the subjective capacity and expertise of clinicians. With no precision instruments to measure biological processes, doctors took pride in their "art" to read the patient's pulse or heartbeat by using their hands. 

√Čtienne Jules Marey (1830-1904) regarded this as a major flaw in Medicine. He saw other disciplines flourish through the development of their instruments. Astronomy had telescopes,  engineering had the steam engine, microbiology had the microscope, ...

Throughout his career Marey invented devises accurate enough to measure physiological changing processes (mainly movements of the living body) and record them in a graphical form. He called this "chronography". One of his first inventions was "the sphymograph" designed to measure radial pulse and blood pressure in humans. 

Marey's Sphygmograph, image taken from wikipedia

When Marey published his invention "the spygmograph" in 1860, the Lancet published a brief commentary about it, as an anecdotal instrument, with no practical medical application. It wasn't until 1870 that experimental physiology was developed as a speciality in Britain. Only after this did few physicians started to take interest in Marey's work. 

In 1875, Marey's  gave a speech in the Medical Congress in Brussels which was published in The British medical journal 

"... the graphical method[...] will attain still greater perfection. Should we not, therefore, expect much from the graphic method ? Should we not hope that, thanks to its
employment, experimental science will advance with a sure and rapid
step ? Such is my profound conviction, and one which I should like
to see widely shared...".

If Marey were to enter any hospital, any physiology lab or many households he would be proud to find that the apparatus that are in use (the electrocardiogram, the oscilloscope, the pulse meter, the electroencephalogram), are digital upgrades from his chronographs. 

Etienne Jules Marey photographed next to his instruments to study movement.
Image taken from wikipedia

                                                    The study of movement today  

Dr Andrew Spence is a neuroscientist working at the The Royal Veterinary College studying biomechanics. As Marey and Muybridge before him, he is keen to unravel the mysteries of movement. He has kindly agreed to talk with the the curious neuron about how it is to work in movement today

Dr Andrew Spence chatting about biomechanics with the curious neuron

                                                  Why is locomotion so interesting?
"The pressure of locomotion has probably shaped the evolution of the nervous system. From escaping predators to mimicking others, movement is the signature behaviour of the animal kingdom. 

If we can figure out how the nervous system, mechanical systems, and the environment interact to produce this signature behaviour, then we stand a good chance of explaining:

       1) the  evolutionary innovations and constraints on the nervous system

        2) what the nervous and mechanical (musculoskeletal) systems are capable of handling. 

        3) understanding locomotion at all levels, from systemic to molecular. If we can integrate from the molecular to the whole body levels, which is ambitious but not crazy, then we gain a more truthful picture of what different structures are doing. For example, we'd like to know what certain ion channel currents in the neurons of the central pattern generator of a running animal do. Perhaps they change the step frequency, or, more likely they combine with many other features to produce the step frequency. 

This would also have clinical applications, for example treating neuromuscular disorders or developing better prosthetic limbs".   

                                       What question is your research aiming to answer? 

"The main question is how and why do animals move, and to address this, my research uses different approaches: from experimental work on freely-behaving animals, to mathematical and physical modelling, and also to designing robots to test hypothesis. Microelectronics are gaining popularity in biological research".

                              What do you think the future will look like in biomechanics? 

"Currently the conclusions of the experiments are merely correlational, in the future, the combination of neuromechanics and optogenetics will allow to establish causal links between neural and mechanical systems". 

Optogenetics is a recently developed technique consisting of a genetic and optical manipulation of a targeted group of cells in the brain. The manipulation can be turned off and on in milliseconds, allowing researchers to have a great control over selected areas of the brain in behaving animals. 

                                                  Studying the galloping horse today

Muybridge and Marey amazed the world with their use of photography to study galloping horses.

Muybridge plate on jumping horses
(image taken from Kingston Museum with permission from the Kingston Museum) 

It was a fantastic opportunity to talk with Andrew Spence, since he has also participated in galloping horse studies and could explain what new advances has this field experimented since the pioneering works of Muybridge and Marey. Andrew Spence argues that current work could be regarded as a mixture of the work of both authors:

a) The rapid motion filming taken from a side camera resembles Muybridge's photographic sequences in Palo Alto.

b)  The use of sensors on the horse's limbs, similar to Marey's work with sensors and pneumatic devises on the animal's hoofs.

Galloping horse video from the study published in Science on the impact of jockey posture in horse's speed (we have been able to play it because it is also published in youtube) :

                                               Using sensors to track movement

Marey used sensors attached to limbs to study movement in soldiers, athletes, factory workers and also in different animal species . Andrew Spence explains that these sensors are the precursors of miniature accelerometers that are in current use, they enable to track and record movement, and are present for example in the Ninendo's Wii controller.

"New sensors are providing with accurate information in lab conditions, but are also allowing researchers to study animals in the wild. It is going to change field biology". 

Photo of a colugo taken by Hillary Byrnes

Andrew Spence gives the example of a study were he has participated, researching Malesian colugos in the wild. This work is a collaboration between the University of California Berkley and the Zoological Gardens in Singapore.

Colugos are distant relatives of humans, they look like a mix between a squirrel and a lemur. Colugos are nocturnal animals who live in the forest canopy, capable of gliding 150 meters, using a membrane between their limbs. Little in known about this animal, it is difficult to observe in the wild and studying it was quite challenging.

Andrew Spence and Greg Byrnes developed a backpack of accelerometers, the size of half a finger, which was light enough to glue on the back of the colugos. The backpack's surgical glue  eventually dissolves and the device falls from the animal's back to the forest. Then researchers have to go and find it.

The accelerometers track the movement of the colugos, and are capable of storing large quantities of information. Back in the lab, this information is analyzed. The researchers have found that colugos are capable of controlling their gliding speed and direction and can use their limbs to grace to branches and trees, preventing big impacts that in long run cause injuries in their junctions.

                                                        Comparative studies 

In mid 19th century, Marey and Muybridge both studied different animal species, to do comparative analysis.

Muybridge did photographic sequences of animals in the Zoological Gardens in Philadelphia, which included lions, elephants, kangaroos...

Muybridge plate of ostrich
(image taken from Kingston Museum with permission from the Kingston Museum) 
  Muybridge plate of lion
(image taken from with permission from Kingston Museum)

Apart from studying horses and colugos, Andrew has worked with cockroaches. As unglamours as these insects might appear, their biomechanics give good hints as what type of optimal design should an animal have to run rapidly over complex terrain conditions. Here is when the sceptic readers might be asking, what  relevance could this have in human progress? Well, rover robots sent by NASA to Mars, had to be capable of running along different types of terrains consuming minimal energy. A sophisticated technical problem that the cockroach seems to have solved efficiently.  

                                              Robots mimicking animal locomotion   

In 1869 Marey constructed a machine to demonstrate the figure-8 shape that insects perform while flying. In the 21st century, scientists use robots as models to test theories. Andrew and his colleges have developed a robot based on the movements of the cockroach, to test stability and energy efficiency on different ground terrains. 

This robot participated in an exhibit in the The Science Museum in London, that attracted more than 8000 visitors. Andrew Spence proudly recalls how a little girl approached him saying: "I have just been in the Natural History Museum looking at dinosaurs, and your robot is way cooler!". 

Kids giving it a go with the robot at The Science Museum London

Performance of the crockroach robot at The Science Museum London
Explanatory text about the robot in The Science Museum London

Members of the The Motion Group, Royal Veterinary College  and the *Kod Lab University of Pennsylvania 


Byrnes G. and Spence A.J. (2011) "Ecological and biomechanical Insights into the evolution of gliding in mammals" Intr. Comp. Biol. 51 (6): 991-1001 

Hildebrand M "The Quadrupedal Gaits of Vertebrates" BioScience 1989 Dec; 39 (11): 766-775.

Lawrence C. "Physiology apparatus in The Wellcome Museum: The Marey Sphygmograph" Med Hist. 1978, 22: 196-200.

Michaelis A.R. "E.J. Marey - Physiologist and first cinematographer" Med Hist. 1966 Apr;10(2):201-3

Miller J. "On the move: visualizing action" 2010 Published by Estorick Foundation. 

Parsons K.J., Spence A.J., Morgan R., Thompson J.A. and Wilson A.M. "High speed field kinematics of foot contact in elite galloping horses in training" Equine vet J. 2011 43(2) 216-222.

Pfau T, Spence A, Starke S, Ferrari M, Wilson A "Modern riding style improves horse racing times" Science 2009 Jul 17;325(5938):289

Spence AJ, Revzen S, Seipel J, Mullens C and Full J.R. "Insects running on elastic surfaces" J Exp Biol. 2010 213, 1907-1920.

 To avoid problems with copyright, images taken from wikipedia