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Cartoon of a person standing next to desk with a computer on it. The person has a brain implant that is communicating with the computer and is responding to and guiding the person’s arm movements.

Illustration courtesy of Jane Fallows.  

We are delighted to announce that the MRC Brain Network Dynamics Unit is set to play key roles in delivering on two new EPSRC/MRC-funded Network Plus grants that are designed to build capability for responsible research across a breadth of neurotechnologies.

The first of the new networks, which is focused on meeting the challenges presented by closed-loop interactions between brains and machines, will see the Unit forming new collaborations with researchers based at the University of Newcastle, the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, and the University of Manchester. Unit Group Leader Associate Professor Andrew Sharott will lead the Unit’s contribution to this new research network.

The second network, which is focused on addressing the challenges of developing minimally-invasive treatments for brain disorders, will see the Unit forming new collaborations with researchers based at Imperial College London, the University of Nottingham, and the University of Edinburgh. Unit Group Leader Associate Professor Hayriye Cagnan will lead the Unit’s contribution to this new research network.

Each of the new networks will also involve other Unit Groups, and will connect the academic teams with industry, research charities, the NHS, and patient groups.

Unit Interim Director Professor Peter Magill commented “This is a great opportunity for Andrew, Hayriye and Unit colleagues to form new interdisciplinary research communities and facilitate knowledge transfer and exchange across sectors. The networks are well positioned to explore the full potential of neurotechnologies for advancing discovery and translational research.”

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Photo of MRC BNDU members attending the Unit Training and Careers Development Event 2022

The Unit held its seventh annual Training & Careers Development Event on Thursday 28th April.

Unit Interim Director Professor Peter Magill started the Event by updating Unit members on key elements of the UKRI’s new Open Access Policy. This was followed by an insightful presentation from Professor Ester Hammond, Director of the Oxford-MRC Doctoral Training Programme, in which she gave some well-received advice on supervising and coaching students (and staff). Unit Group Leader Professor Tim Denison then gave an engaging and informative talk on “SMART goal setting” in the context of science and engineering, drawing on examples from both academia and industry. The General Session ended with Unit Group Leader Professor Charlotte Stagg highlighting the opportunities afforded by the Unit’s bespoke Mentoring Scheme for Postdoctoral Researchers.

In the first of two subsequent break-out workshops, Dr. Cassandra Gould van Praag, Open Science Community Engagement Co-ordinator, Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging, led an interactive discussion of the whys, whens, and hows of best practice in Open Data. In the second workshop, Deirdre Newman and Eliza Tinson of the NDCN professional services team offered some valuable guidance on the practicalities (and common pitfalls) of research grant management, all with a view to maximising the benefits of funding.

The Event was held at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, and was the first Unit-wide gathering held in person since before the start of the Covid pandemic.

Professor Charlie Stagg, Chair of the Unit’s Training & Career Development Committee, commented “Specialised training and career support is a strategic priority for the MRC BNDU, and it was hugely important to us to come together in person to deliver this event. Special thanks to our guest speakers, who generously shared their expertise and experience for the benefit of Unit members. We look forward to putting their great advice into practice.”

Dopamine neurons in the brain.

We are delighted to announce that the MRC Brain Network Dynamics Unit has received Collaborative Award funding from Wellcome for a substantial multi-year research programme designed to advance the understanding of dopamine neuron dysfunction in Parkinson’s.

The new Collaborative Award builds on the MRC Unit’s interactions with colleagues at the Oxford Parkinson’s Disease Centre, and will bring three Oxford teams together with researchers based at the University of Ulm, Germany, and at University College London. As part of this collaboration, the MRC Unit will leverage its leading expertise in high-resolution in vivo phenotyping of rodent models of Parkinson’s.

Wellcome Collaborative Awards promote the development of new ideas and speed the pace of discovery. The Awards fund teams of researchers, consisting of independent research groups, to work together on the most important scientific problems that can only be solved through collaborative efforts.

Professor Peter Magill, who will lead the Unit’s contribution to the new research programme, commented, “This Collaborative Award presents an exciting opportunity for Unit researchers to team up with other experts and tackle the science from different angles using complementary approaches. It is an excellent fit to the Unit’s wider strategy supporting both fundamental and translational neuroscience research. We look forward to working with our collaborators as we pursue our shared goal of defining why dopamine neurons are so vulnerable in Parkinson’s.”

Photo of (from left to right) Dr. Kouichi Nakamura, Associate Professor Andrew Sharott, Giulio Spagnol, Professor Gordon Arbuthnott and Professor Peter Magill

Our congratulations go to Unit D.Phil. student Giulio Spagnol for successfully defending his doctoral thesis, entitled “Investigations of substantia nigra pars reticulata function and their implications for the disinhibition model of basal ganglia output”, in his viva voce examination on 26th April 2022.

Giulio’s viva examiners were Professor Gordon Arbuthnott (Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, Japan) and Associate Professor Andrew Sharott (University of Oxford).

Giulio was supervised by Professor Peter Magill and Dr. Kouichi Nakamura in the Unit.

Big Questions podcast logo

Have you ever wondered where habits come from?

You might find the answers in a new podcast featuring Unit D.Phil. student Charlotte Collingwood.

Charlotte was interviewed in an Oxford Sparks Big Questions podcast, during which she gave an accessible and engaging account of how habits form in our brain, how this process can be studied, and what to do about bad habits.

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Dr. Natalie Doig points out features in the live camera feed from the transmission electron microscope as a school pupil navigates a specimen.

The MRC Brain Network Dynamics Unit was delighted to once again host stakeholders onsite for its annual Schools Open Day, held this year on 17th March.

Unit staff and students welcomed pupils and teachers from local state-funded schools as they visited to learn more about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and medical research at the Unit. During their visits, pupils in small groups talked informally to Unit members about key concepts and challenges in brain research, as well as what it is like working in STEM. Special emphasis was also placed on giving pupils the opportunity to see real working instruments and laboratories for themselves. After a group discussion on the use of animals in medical research, engagement activities were coordinated around 4 ‘knowledge stations’, at which pupils could experience some of the Unit’s core research themes, including: the activity and structure of the brain in health and disease; human brain stimulation; computer modelling of brain function; and brain-machine interfaces. At the end of the visit, pupils were given souvenirs to take home.

Professor David Dupret and Dr Natalie Doig, Chairs of the Unit’s Public Engagement Committee, commented “It was so nice to share our science with A-level students onsite again, after the challenging times we have all faced in the last few years. Unit members were thrilled to discuss their work with such enthusiastic and involved visitors. Another great Schools Open Day at the MRC BNDU.”

Maxine Bullock, Head of Biology at Lord Williams School, commented “The open day was an outstanding trip. We are a state school and it was an amazing opportunity for our students to gain greater insight into neuroscience and medical research, and to have a chance to ask questions to real scientists from Professors to Postdoctoral scientists to PhD students, whilst viewing a range of relatable cutting-edge scientific activities. The impact of this open day on these students’ future educational and career choices cannot be underestimated. Thank you once again.”

Gill Barnes, Subject Leader Social Sciences at Gosford Hill School, commented: “My students have asked me to send a huge thank you to the MRC BNDU for hosting such an exciting day. They came away excited and more importantly motivated to look at the various degrees that they can pursue following their A levels. We, as staff, have heard them in sixth form telling other students about their visit and what they have learned, which is lovely. As their teacher, I would just like to say thank you for providing such inspirational activities that have brought psychology to life for my students. I really appreciate it”.

The Unit’s Schools Open Day was one of many engaging events held at the University of Oxford and further afield during Brain Awareness Week 2022.

Portrait photo of Ashwini Oswal

Many congratulations to Unit Associate Member Dr Ashwini Oswal on being awarded an MRC Clinician Scientist Fellowship.

MRC Clinician Scientist Fellowships support talented clinically-active healthcare professionals to lead their own research, establish their own research team, and make the transition to independent investigator.

Unit Interim Director Professor Peter Magill commented: “We are delighted for Ash. This new Fellowship is a fantastic achievement, reflecting not only his brilliant track record but also his clear potential for research leadership. Ash’s research vision is well aligned with the Unit’s discovery and translational science portfolios, and we look forward to working in close collaboration with him during his Fellowship.”

Portrait photo of Cal Shearer

Many congratulations to Unit D.Phil. student Cal Shearer on being selected to join the British Neuroscience Association (BNA) Scholars programme.

The BNA Scholars programme was launched in 2021 with a view to improving equality, diversity and inclusion in neuroscience. The programme supports students from currently under-represented ethnic groups in neuroscience, offering them a mentoring scheme, networking opportunities, and membership to both the BNA and Federation of European Neuroscience Societies, as well as funding towards attendance at conferences. Students are accepted on to the Scholars programme following an annual open competition.

Cal's D.Phil. research is currently focused on using a range of techniques in both humans and mice to study hippocampal-neocortical interactions during inferential decision making. Cal is co-supervised by Dr Helen Barron and Professor David Dupret in the Unit, and by Professor Jill O'Reilly in Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology.

Seven photos of the gallery piece “Zoom into your brain” featuring the Unit’s work at the exhibition “Your Amazing Brain: A User’s Guide” held at the Banbury Museum & Gallery

We are proud to announce that some of the Unit’s microscopic images, illuminating in beautiful detail the circuits and cells of the mammalian brain, are on public display as part of a new exhibition being held at the Banbury Museum & Gallery.

The exhibition, entitled “Your Amazing Brain: A User’s Guide”, runs from 12th February to 5th June 2022 and is an interactive, family-friendly experience offering the public an opportunity to journey inside the brain and discover more about what makes the brain so special.

The Unit’s images form the core of a gallery piece “Zoom into your brain” that showcases, at increasing magnification, the organisation of the brain into regions, different types of neurons, and specialised structures such as axons, dendrites, and synaptic connections. Unit researchers Natalie Doig, Kouichi Nakamura and Ben Micklem each provided spectacular shots taken with our microscopes.

Dr Natalie Doig, who led on the curation of the Unit’s images for the exhibition, commented “We are delighted to showcase the Unit’s work and play our part in helping immerse and inspire others in the wonders of the brain. It was a pleasure to team up with departmental colleagues at the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and contribute to the exhibition.”

On the left, a cartoon of human head showing an implanted brain pacemaker device. On the right, a cartoon showing a circle of steps in the research system.

We are excited to announce that Unit researchers have made pivotal contributions to a first-in-human implant of a bioelectronic research system designed to advance the development of new and improved treatments for brain disorders.

Working with collaborators at the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Surgical Sciences and Department of Engineering Science, and in partnership with industry, Unit researchers will help deliver the MINDS feasibility study, an innovative clinical trial of a novel brain pacemaker for stimulation of deep brain structures in patients with Multiple Systems Atrophy.

The pacemaker device is part of an investigational research platform, the ‘PicostimTM-DyNeuMo,’ which was developed as part of a strategic collaboration between Unit Group Leader Professor Tim Denison and the UK-based bioelectronics technology company Bioinduction Ltd.. Going forward, the research team aim to identify electrophysiological brain signals that can be used as biomarkers to indicate pathological states, and investigate how these vary throughout the day/night cycle, with a view to ultimately developing ‘closed-loop’ brain stimulation patterns that optimise symptom management and improve sleep.

Professor Tim Denison, who will lead the Unit’s contribution to the MINDS study, commented “Implantable stimulators provide a unique platform for enabling clinical neuroscience by providing 24/7 access to brain networks. Scientific instrumentation first serves to help understand disease pathology and can then be configured to prototype enhanced therapy options including customization for patient-specific physiology. The creation of fully-implantable clinical research tools required cooperation between academics and industry to ensure the instrumentation meets stringent regulatory standards, and the PicostimTM-DyNeuMo research tool is the result of symbiotic collaboration with Bioinduction leveraging their PicostimTM platform.”