Brain Day with Dr Guy Sutton

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As part of British Science Week, a group of Sixth Form Biologists and Psychologists took part in the much anticipated Brain Day, run by Dr Guy Sutton, who is the Director and Founder of Medical Biology Interactive and an Honorary Consultant Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham Medical School. He evidently has a vast understanding in and a contagious enthusiasm for neuroscience and we all really appreciated his ability to simplify complex concepts.

The first session was an introduction to basic brain anatomy, including the cerebral cortex, cerebellum and brain stem as well as their functions. Dr Sutton also focused on neurons and synapses, using his various models to explain the limbic system, which is in charge of emotional reactions and memories. One of the highlights of the day was seeing some stunning images, particularly a newly developed technique called ‘Brainbow’. This involves genetically engineering an animal to have fluorescent proteins, which show up as 89 different colours in an image to show its neurons.

Following our break, we moved from the lab to the computer room in order to discover how drugs can affect brain function and how physical contact can stimulate gene release. We discussed how our environment can alter the structure of the brain and that often environmental factors can override genetics, which was an interesting argument to add to the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate. The animations helped us to experience Dr Sutton’s words in a more tangible way. This session was particularly beneficial to the psychology students, as the impacts of drug use is a topic that is covered within the syllabus.

We then learnt about the interesting history of hemispherectomies, which involves removing half of the brain in surgery, by watching a clip explaining why the American Paediatric Neurosurgeon Ben Carson removed half of a young girl’s brain to stop her constant fits. It was fascinating to learn that the girl could walk ten days after the surgery due to neuroplasticity - the other half had compensated for the removed hemisphere. We were very eager to start the brain dissection, which gave us the unique opportunity to visually see the various structures of the intricate sheep's brain. We worked individually or in pairs to remove the remaining skull, and then peel off the meninges (the membrane surrounding the organ) to reveal the pinky-grey, shrivelled walnut underneath. We continued under Dr Sutton’s instruction until we finished with a cross-section of the brain, having divided it into two hemispheres.

After lunch, we explored the lobes of the brain and how damage to different areas can cause behavioural changes. We looked at several fMRI scans to compare healthy brains and the brains of convicted felons who had brain damage. It has been shown that, in many cases, the aggression of these felons was caused by brain damage, for example aggressive behaviour stopped completely in one man once his brain tumour was removed. This session was fascinating as we could clearly see how the smallest amount of excess pressure on a certain area of the brain can cause dramatic behavioural alterations.

Our final topic was ‘The Shattered Mind’ and essentially involved the difference in the frontal lobe of people with mental disorders, particularly schizophrenia. We were all engrossed in Dr Sutton’s case studies demonstrating when neuroscience played a crucial or inefficacious role in the judicial system. It will be very interesting to see to what extent scientific advancements influence court cases in the future, or whether the need for free will and responsibility in society will often remain more important. This was just one of many ethical questions raised throughout this fascinating day.

Jessica and Katharine (LVI Form)