A group photo of attendees at the Unit’s Science Day in summer 2022.

The Unit held its fourteenth Science Day on Friday 24th June 2022. Unpublished work and future research projects were at the centre of discussion, and Unit members and visitors eagerly took the opportunity to provide the informal constructive feedback that is essential for fostering collaborative working and team science.

There were 9 short research talks and 19 poster presentations, most of which were given by the Unit’s early-career scientists. Attendees were also treated to a Keynote Lecture from Dr Marc Aurel Busche of the UK Dementia Research Institute, in which he gave a discerning account of the impact of amyloid protein on neuronal circuit function.

Unit Interim Director Professor Peter Magill commented: “It was a great pleasure to hold our first in-person Science Day since late 2019. Unit members were energised by the chance to meet and exchange ideas under the same roof, and it was exciting to see how the work of the Unit’s students and postdoctoral staff is revealing important new insights into brain function and dysfunction.”

Photograph of Dr Helen Barron

Many congratulations to Unit scientist Dr Helen Barron on being awarded a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship.

UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships support talented early-career researchers to deliver ambitious and innovative programmes of research over several years. Helen will take up her Fellowship in June 2022, and will establish and lead her own research team across the MRC Brain Network Dynamics Unit and the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging, both of which are hosted by the Nuffield Department for Clinical Neurosciences.

Over the last few years, Helen has worked as a Postdoctoral Neuroscientist in Professor David Dupret’s Group in the Unit, where she has used a cross-species approach to uncover cell- and circuit-level mechanisms of memory in the brain. The goal of Helen’s new research programme funded by UKRI is to establish the specialized biological mechanisms that gate and control selective memory recall and explain why disturbances in memory gating may underpin core symptoms in neuropsychiatric disease.

Unit Interim Director Professor Peter Magill commented: “We are thrilled for Helen. She is an outstanding researcher, and a valued colleague and collaborator. Helen’s research vision brilliantly complements the Unit’s discovery and translational science portfolios, and we look forward to working with Helen during her Fellowship. Helen’s success provides another ringing endorsement of the Unit’s commitment to excellence in the research training and career development of its membership.”

Protrait photo of Hayriye Cagnan

We are delighted to announce that Unit Group Leader Associate Professor Hayriye Cagnan has been selected to join this year’s SUSTAIN programme organised by The Academy of Medical Sciences.

SUSTAIN is a year-long programme offering interactive skills training and career development sessions, tailored mentoring and the chance to network with research leaders, all with a view to enabling female researchers to thrive in their independent research careers.

Hayriye commented, “I am thrilled to be part of this programme and to learn from previous generations who navigated similar challenges.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.”