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acrobatics & brain health at 'WINDOW on the Brain'

By Daria Jensen, postdoctoral researcher in cognitive neuroscience

October 2022 - In May, I performed a partner acrobatics display about brain health as part of WIN's "WINdow on the Brain" after-hours museum event at Banbury Museum. More than 100 members of the public attended this sold-out event, which was the capstone of WIN's public engagement programme in Banbury to accompany the "Your Amazing Brain" exhibition. 

The acrobatic performance was titled “Mens sana in corpore sano”. Together with two fellow neuroscientists, Anne Hedegaard and Nils Otto, we showed that partner acrobatics is more than just a type of physical exercise and includes different aspects contributing to sustaining a healthy brain across age. With the growing ageing population and increased frequency of risk factors for dementia and cognitive decline such as obesity (23% in Europe, WHO Europe, 2016), outreach on what to do for good brain health becomes increasingly important. That is critical, as a recent survey conducted by researchers of the Lifebrain Consortium shows that there is a lot of uncertainty about which aspects contribute to brain health and how to maintain it (Friedmann et al., 2020).

Acrobats in striped blue, red, and white shirts strike a pose. The male acrobat is supporting the female acrobat above his head. 

Photo by Eoin Kelleher

We demonstrated during this performance that different aspects of partner acrobatics are contributing to sustaining a healthy brain. For example, during the training our cardiovascular health is improving, we are confronted with new challenges by learning new skills and we are in a social setting with other people. We also pointed out that other factors, such as a healthy diet and good sleep are important for sustaining a healthy brain.

Within my research, I am interested in preventing or delaying the onset of dementia and cognitive decline. Thus, during the development of the performance, we looked into different risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia and how those can be converted into acrobatic movements. That experience was very enjoyable, and we had to be very creative. We also developed a script for the talk during the performance, as most of the acrobatic moves were matched with words.

It was great to perform at Banbury Museum and engage with the audience. It was unsurprising to us that most people did not consider acrobatics as being an accessible sport, unrelated to their physical abilities or age. Nevertheless, we explained that many of our team members start without any prior experience and that we are inclusive of all age groups. They asked us questions about when and how we started acrobatics, and we discussed factors contributing to brain health.

Overall, it was a fruitful experience to show people that many different aspects contribute to brain health while doing acrobatics.

References: Friedman BB, Suri S, Solé-Padullés C, Düzel S, Drevon CA, Baaré WFC, Bartrés-Faz D, Fjell AM, Johansen-Berg H, Madsen KS, Nyberg L, Penninx BWJH, Sexton C, Walhovd KB, Zsoldos E, Budin-Ljøsne I. Are People Ready for Personalized Brain Health? Perspectives of Research Participants in the Lifebrain Consortium. Gerontologist. 2020 Aug 14;60(6):1050-1059. doi: 10.1093/geront/gnz155. PMID: 31682729; PMCID: PMC7427479.


All three acrobats in a pose. The male acrobat supports the two female acrobats, who are both upside down, one balanced on top of the other.

Photo by Abi Wyllie and Hannah Cole




live experiment livestream for primary schools

By Barbara Robinson, Research Assistant in Sleep and Stroke Rehabilitation

June 2022 - On 16 June, I volunteered to be the scanner subject for the live-streamed Live Experiment that was part of WIN's public engagement collaboration with Banbury Museum. Prior to the day, WIN had run a competition for Banbury primary schools, for groups of children to design their own MRI experiments. The winning idea was then conducted and live-streamed, with an online audience of 1,800 students. Having been scanned multiple times, I was happy to be the volunteer in the MRI scanner. One can imagine the joys of finding out that the winning design was based on fears and comforts! Despite knowing I would have to endure something that would evoke fear, I knew this was going to involve only pictures, and was happy to continue with my involvement.

As I went into the scanner, I found myself starting to feel quite cosy in there – quite a different feeling compared to the first scan I ever had, which had felt a little more claustrophobic! Once in, I was first was asked to look at something I’m afraid of, which happens to be octopuses (or should it be octopi or octopodes? Regardless, they remain as terrifying whichever grammatical version you use). I was then presented with a display of much cuter kittens and small animals, with the purpose of comforting me. Finally, I was once again presented with images of octopuses and asked to think about the kittens. All the while during this, the team were looking at my scans and discussing what was happening in my brain.

Interestingly, although the second round of octopus pictures were still unpleasant to look at, it wasn’t as bad as the first round when there were no thoughts of cute kittens. I wondered if this technique would work if there had been a live octopus rather than pictures. I’ll have to keep you updated on that, though I won’t be going out of my way to find out!

Excitingly, the scans revealed several areas of activation. I found it especially noteworthy that there was sensory motor activation observed when looking at the pictures of octopuses (the part of the brain involved in planning and sensing movements). Dr Miriam Klein-Flugge speculated during the feed that this may have been because I could have been imagining how it feels to touch an octopus, and I can confirm that I was in fact thinking about how horrible it would feel to have the tentacles wrap around my arm.

You can watch the Live Experiment livestream recording here

Screenshot of the experiment livestream. A male and female researcher, seated, face the camera. Overlaid text reads

Screenshot from the Live Experiment livestream. Barbara is not visible as she was in the MRI scanner! This photo depicts WIN members Stuart Clare and Miriam Klein-Flugge, who presented the livestream.



Art & Neuroscience with Mind mental health charity

By Pilar Artiach Hortelano, Sorcha Hamilton, Shona Waters, and Chloe Wigg, Psychopharmacology and Emotion Research Lab 

May 2022 - Four of us from the University of Oxford Psychopharmacology and Emotion Research Lab (PERL) helped deliver an 'Art and Neuroscience' workshop with participants from Mind, as part of the events programme accompanying WIN's "Your Amazing Brain" exhibition at Banbury Museum. 


The Exhibition

This exhibition showcased many different types of perceptual illusions, as well as sensory stimuli and posters explaining the linguistics of emotions and cultural norms and differences. The aim of this exhibition therefore was to highlight how our brain interprets what it sees, hears, smells and feels in our surrounding environment.

The Workshop – Researchers and Games

A group of Mind service users came along to the museum to check out the exhibition and to engage in exciting discussions with us about our research in how the brain processes emotional information and how this is affected by medication. During this workshop, we used interactive games such as the “emotional facial processing game” which is essentially one of our key computer-based tasks. The group collectively discussed and shared their interpretation of the different emotional expressions which sparked curiosity and in turn, such games led into interesting conversations about mental health, experimental medicine studies, and the importance of emotional cognition for our daily lives.

Question Time

As researchers, we found it enlightening to hear what this group thought of our research, and indeed of us! They said that they expected to be intimidated by a group of “big scientists in white coats”, and instead, they were comfortable and confident to ask questions, challenging both our research, and our use of medication. We found this dissemination refreshing and it gave us a chance to explain why we are passionate about this research and how we believe in personable medicine. We agreed that we are aware that one medicine, and indeed medicine in general, is not the answer for everyone. We explained how our simple tasks (which they enjoyed) help to indicate how a certain medication, such as a specific SSRI, may indeed improve the mental health of a particular individual. To have such open conversation with a group of people who work hands-on with those who suffer with mental wellbeing issues every day was really rewarding. Their questions were frank and honest as they explained their worries about experimental medicine research, but by the end, they were confident that they all learned something new and they were fascinated by the different types of drugs we use and that we can even repurpose common drugs to try to improve emotion and cognition!

Participants had some challenging and thought-provoking questions, including how some medications for physical problems could have potential in treating mental health conditions; or how the mechanism of traditional antidepressants differs from the proposed mechanism of novel lines of treatment such as ketamine and psilocybin. Overall, it was a great opportunity to connect both researchers and the general population, and to explore new ideas and perspectives about how research is done and viewed by participants in a very informal setting.

Art Therapy

This session was concluded with an interactive art therapy workshop with Tom Cross, an artist collaborating with Mind. Both Mind’s participants and our researcher team immersed in a collaborative and therapeutic session exploring everyone’s interpretation of positive and negative feelings through art. It was a great opportunity for both groups to bond, to let go, be vulnerable, and connect our emotions with their most creative side. We were able to draw around a table and still engage in further discussion about our research as well as general chit chat (bye bye to the big white coat theory!!). By the end – we had a fantastic piece of art that was metres and metres long and was special in so many little ways to everyone – many thanks to Mind, Tom, and Hanna for putting this together, we really enjoyed the session!

Four researchers wearing white t-shirts stand in front of Banbury museum.

White paper is laid on a table and covered with drawings and craft materials.



Reminiscence session with older adults in Banbury

By Grace Gillis, Research Coordinator, Department of Psychiatry

March 2022 - On 14 March, my colleague Gemma Butler and I had the opportunity to engage with older adults in Banbury, at a monthly Reminiscence group hosted by Banbury Museum. This activity was part of the events programme tied to the museum's Your Amazing Brain exhibition, created in partnership with WIN. During the Reminiscence session, individuals gathered to reminisce together, sharing memories connected to various objects. This event formed part of a wider discussion on maintaining brain health throughout the lifespan.

Attendees were invited to bring an object that was associated with strong memories. We began with a brief presentation on the interactions between memories and the brain. Afterwards, we had time to discuss the brought objects and associated memories. We rooted our conversation in the interaction between memories and sensory experiences, even linking back to the underlying neural networks. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the stories associated with the various objects, from a figurine with memories of the suffragette movement to a small coinbox with memories of managing finances in a different era. Beyond hearing these reflections, my favourite part was seeing the sense of community that developed across the group from the sharing of common experiences. I was witness to the power of group reminiscence to stave off the social isolation and loneliness so pervasive among older adults.

We finished with a discussion on additional ways to maintain brain health, including learning new things and staying socially engaged. It was inspiring to see their interest in our research, including an eagerness to get involved. For me, public engagement activities like this refresh my motivation to research cognitive ageing in health and disease.

Two researchers pose in front of a table set with historical objects. Their powerpoint slide presentation can be vaguely seen in the background.

WIN researchers also participated in another Banbury Museum Reminiscence session in April 2022 - this photo is of researchers Shona Forster and Luciana Maffei at that event. 


Banbury Primary School visits

By Lucy Starling, Research Assistant, Vision Group

February 2022 - As part of the ‘Your Amazing Brain’ exhibition at Banbury Museum, I was invited to deliver a session to a class of Year 4 students at Longford Park School in Banbury. This was the first time I had ever stood at the front of a class to present anything, so I am very glad I had a wonderful group with me who had much more experience with kids than myself!

The pupils were amazed by facts such as the speed that information travels along a neuron (faster than an F1 car!) and the average number of neurons in a human brain (around 86 billion), and they leapt at the chance to stand at the front of the class with a plush neuron and demonstrate how neurons communicate. It felt very rewarding to introduce this area of science to the class, and what surprised me most was how much some of the pupils already knew! One pupil in particular gave a detailed explanation of memories, the hippocampus, and the nervous system.

I specifically delivered slides about MRI and how we can use magnets to look inside things, such as the brain. We started with a guessing game where I showed MR images of fruit before moving on to say that we can use MRI to see the structure and function of living brains. This got the class excited and curious about things that might affect the scanner, with one pupil asking what would happen if someone fell asleep and another asking whether someone with braces can have an MRI scan. And of course, everyone was excited to make their own model brain out of plasticine at the end of the session!

Three researchers wearing lanyards stand at the front of a classroom. Closest to the camera is Lucy, with blond hair and smiling at the camera.

WIN researchers Lucy Starling, Lilian Weber, and Marco Wittman at Longford Park school. Photo by WIN researcher Miriam Klein-Flugge.



Drawing Neuroscience: Report of a neurosketching workshop in november 2021

By Lucy Starling, Research Assistant, Vision Group

November 2021 - Visual representations are important in scientific communication - the 'gist' of an image can usually be captured and processed more quickly than a paragraph of words can be read, and an eye-catching diagram or figure is often the centrepiece of a poster. A good image can allow us to explain concepts more easily to all kinds of audience, from explaining your proposed method to a grants panel, disseminating findings in a paper, or telling family members just what exactly it is that you spend your time doing.

Michelle Fava Darlington, a visual practitioner and researcher based in Cambridge, visited the the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging (WIN) in November to deliver a neurosketching workshop delving into the importance of developing effective metaphors in visual communication. Beginning immediately with a group drawing warm up, the workshop explored the idea of drawing as an iterative process in which emotions and the input of others can both play a large role. It isn't often easy to communicate complex scientific principles in an easily understandable way, so instead Michelle offered an alternative approach: the use of metaphor.

The idea for this workshop was developed by Carinne Piekema of the WIN Public Engagement team and Betina Ip in the Vision Group. Betina, an avid fan of drawing and comic books, had been toying with the idea of a public engagement event which shifted the perspective from reading comics to actually making them. Together, she and Carinne developed the idea of working with Michelle and Matteo Farinella (author of Neurocomic), as a training opportunity to allow WIN researchers to think about their research in different ways.

The group discussed common metaphors in science, with Michelle providing an informative, interactive webpage of metaphors for the mind and brain to be used as a starting point for developing our own ideas that could be used to express different principles and areas of research.

Screenshot of the ‘Metaphors for the mind and brain’ webpage, created by Michelle Fava Darlington. Screenshot of the ‘Metaphors for the mind and brain’ webpage, created by Michelle Fava Darlington.

After a delightful lunch break, participants paired up and described their research to one another, with each person creating a sketch of the other person’s research idea. This turned out to be a particularly useful method, as it can be difficult to see your own ideas from any other perspective. “Being stimulated to think in metaphors will potentially also give [researchers] more tools to explain their research to a wide variety of audiences,” said Carinne about the event, “which is of course brilliant from a public engagement point of view!”

Participant Katherine Bryant commented: “I think scientists sometimes shy away from using metaphors to describe scientific concepts because we have witnessed them being misused and even causing misinformation about science in the public, for example, the notion of the brain being ‘hard-wired’”. She continued: “However, this workshop gave some excellent examples of how metaphors can illuminate ideas, and how a good presenter can also highlight the places where the metaphor doesn't work as a way to clarify concepts even further.”

A photograph of Carinne’s collection of index cards, each with an idea of how to represent ‘What WIN does!’ visually.A photograph of Carinne’s collection of index cards, each with an idea of how to represent ‘What WIN does!’ visually.

Towards the end of the workshop, we connected virtually with Matteo Farinella, a professional illustrator and neuroscientist known for the book Neurocomic. He provided valuable input into the use of metaphor for scientific communication, with his top tips being to ensure the metaphor is relatable so that people understand it, and to know how far the metaphor can go before it begins to break down and no longer fit your subject.

Participants said the workshop was both useful and enjoyable - and perhaps wished it lasted longer! Working in groups to discuss ongoing or future research and explore ideas to effectively communicate this research to others through art was refreshing. Personally, I had never considered using comics in science, however I now believe that art can be an effective mechanism for communicating scientific findings to non-specialists.

I would like to thank Michelle for her fantastic job in leading the workshop, Betina and Carinne for organising it, and everyone who attended for making the workshop as effective and enjoyable as it was. I would also suggest that anyone interested keeps their eyes peeled for sequel events!