brain scanThe latest in neuroscience research and development will be revealed at the 21st Cambridge Science Festival (9-22 March), including how new technologies are helping researchers to understand the workings of the brain, experimental studies of drug addiction, and the outcomes from the public MEG and ME brain experiments, which are currently being conducted.

Building something as complicated as the brain is a challenging exercise. On Saturday 14 March, during the event Looking into how the brain is built, Professor Bill Harris and Professor Christine Holt demonstrate some of the steps to build a brain and discuss how new technologies help us investigate the underlying molecular and cellular mechanisms.

On Friday 20 March, during the Cambridge Neuroscience public lecture, Brain mechanisms of drug addiction: are abstinence and prevention of relapse realistic treatment goals? Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience, Barry Everitt, will discuss experimental studies of addiction that have identified pro-abstinence and relapse prevention treatments. He will discuss the psychological and neural mechanisms of the compulsion to seek and take drugs. Those addicted find it extremely difficult to abstain and, if they do, have a high propensity to relapse.

Speaking ahead of the event, Professor Everitt said: “Many people use addictive drugs recreationally, some lose control over use and compulsively seek and take drugs. I will summarise advances in understanding the neural and psychological basis of addictive behaviour, especially the importance of the learning mechanisms by which otherwise neutral environmental stimuli become associated with drug use.

“These drug cues exert a major influence on addiction; they can elicit cravings, drug seeking and taking habits through involuntary processes, and they can precipitate relapse even long into abstinence. Increasingly, we are beginning to understand the nature of vulnerability to lose control over drug use, for example the trait of high impulsivity predisposes individuals to compulsive cocaine use and to relapse during abstinence.

“Despite these advances in understanding the neural mechanisms underlying addiction there are few, if any, treatments in development or in clinical use that promote abstinence or prevent relapse, even though the potential targets for such treatments have been identified. I will discuss how diminishing the impact of drug associations on craving and relapse offers a novel and potentially effective treatment approach, in particular the possibility of reducing the impact of drug memories elicited by those associations.”

On Sunday 22 March, the Cambridge Science Festival will also present the results from the public MEG and Me experiments, which look at what happens to the brain when we lie, feel stressed and learn.

Dr Timothy Rittman, a Clinical Research Fellow at Cambridge, said: “The MEG and Me project was developed from a public challenge and uses the latest brain imaging technology. At the Science Festival, we will be revealing the results of experiments suggested by members of the public to understand our dynamic brains as we ask people to lie to their bosses, listen to crying babies, watch visual illusions and more.

“As people perform these tasks, we have recorded changes in the magnetic fields produced by their brains using a magnetoencephalography (MEG) scanner. We will give people a taste of neuroscience research and share our successes and frustrations along the way. We will be joined by active researchers from the University of Cambridge's department of Clinical Neurosciences and a visual artist to discuss what it all means.”

In addition, on Monday 16 March, a new performance by Laura Jane Dean, supported by the Wellcome Trust, will draw on personal experience of living with OCD and reveals the actualities and artefacts of a therapeutic process. In collaboration with Professor Trevor Robbins, Director of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, and a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, Laura attempts to understand what it means to be ill and what it might mean to get better during the theatrical performance, This Room.

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