Room to breath

Recently, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the government must take immediate action to cut air pollution, ordering “that the Government must prepare and consult on new air quality plans for submission to the European Commission… no later than December 31 2015”. This was brought about when the UK was found to be in breach of its duty to achieve legally binding limits for nitrogen dioxide by an initial 2010 deadline. So what exactly is nitrogen dioxide, where does it come from, and why is it so bad for us?

Nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, is a molecule consisting of one nitrogen atom and two oxygen atoms. It is produced via the oxidation of nitric oxide (NO) in air – natural sources include; lightning, plants, soil and water. However, overall, only about 1% of the total amount of nitrogen dioxide found in urban environments comes from these natural processes. In urban areas, about 80% of atmospheric NO2 comes from motor vehicle exhausts with smaller amounts arising from other sources, include metal refining, and electricity generation from coal-fired power stations.

Lightning is a (small) natural source of nitrogen dioxide (Photo Credit: Diegojaf22 via Wikimedia Commons).

Lightning is a (small) natural source of nitrogen dioxide (Photo Credit: Diegojaf22 via Wikimedia Commons).

Nitrogen dioxide reacts with moisture, ammonia, and other compounds to form small particles. Inhaling nitrogen dioxide can be extremely harmful to humans, because these particles penetrate deeply into the body, damaging the lining of the lungs through abrasion. This can act to reduce immunity to lung infections, and cause problems such as wheezing, coughing, flu and bronchitis. Increased levels of nitrogen dioxide have even more significant impacts on people with asthma leading to fiercer, and more frequent attacks. However, the impacts of air pollution goes beyond asthma and other respiratory diseases, having been linked to heart attacks and strokes; the world health organisation has also formally classified outdoor air pollution as a carcinogen, causing both lung and bladder cancers.

Traffic in not just bad for our stress levels (Photo Credit: Stephen via Wikimedia Commons).

Traffic in not just bad for our stress levels (Photo Credit: Stephen via Wikimedia Commons).

Current figures place the number of deaths caused by air pollution in the UK somewhere between 29,000 and 30,000 a year – which is more than the number of deaths resulting from obesity and alcohol combined. Even more worryingly, a recent study found that these statistics do not factor in nitrogen dioxide, and only include deaths caused by particulate matter (i.e. particles suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere). The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants is due to publish its findings later this year, where it is predicts that the premature death toll caused by road traffic pollution will be around twice as high as originally thought.

According to DEFRA the average roadside concentrations of nitrogen dioxide had fallen 15% since 2010.  In addition both nitrogen dioxide emissions and background concentrations had more than halved in the 20 years since the mid 90s. However, whilst nitrogen dioxide emissions from petrol cars have fallen significantly over past 20 years, the emissions from diesel cars have overall shown little change during the same period.

Greater Manchester residents can find out more about the air quality in their local area at the GreatAir Manchester website, which provides daily pollution indices, as well as host of useful resources and advice. The DEFRA air quality website is also a great resource, and provides daily pollution notifications, as well as five-day pollution forecasts. If you have any respiratory problems and are planning on being outside for a long time, then it is well worth checking these websites first, especially if you plan on doing any vigorous activities.

The DEFRA air quality index id based on measurements made by measurement stations like this one in Edinburgh (Photo Credit: David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons).

The DEFRA air quality index id based on measurements made by measurement stations like this one in Edinburgh (Photo Credit: David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons).

It is important to remember however, that this is not simply a straightforward problem. For example, because of the complex nature of the chemistry that is involved, a decrease in nitrogen dioxide levels can actually lead to an increase in surface level ozone, which is also a harmful pollutant, and which in Europe alone is responsible for approximately 20,000 premature deaths a year. You can read more about the relationship between ozone and nitrogen dioxide in this paper.

The Supreme Court’s ruling could be a watershed moment in the UK’s fight to improve air pollution in our urban areas, and with UN statistics showing that over 80 % of the UK’s population is currently living in urban environments, it is important that we act now, before it is too late.

Post by: Sam Illingworth

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Hearing voices: more common than you might think

I remember being woken up from one of my daily naps by the familiar melody of the ice cream van that comes round our estate every day in summer. True, it was slightly odd that I could hear it so vividly despite wearing ear plugs; nevertheless I leaped out of bed, grabbed my purse and ran outside. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that there was no ice cream van in sight!

Voices can be loud and clear, or barely distinguishable from thoughts.  Image courtesy of stockimages at

Voices can be loud and clear, or barely distinguishable from thoughts.
Image courtesy of stockimages at

Auditory hallucinations are more common that we might think, and they do not only happen to people with mental health problems. The example I described above is a form of hypnopompic hallucinations, i.e. those experienced upon awakening from sleep, and familiar to just over 12% of the population (Ohayon et al., 1996).

Let’s take a moment though to consider what we mean by a ‘hallucination’. The word itself comes from the Latin ‘allucinari’ meaning ‘to wander in the mind’, ‘to dream’ (Choong et al., 2007). It is a perception that occurs in the absence of an external stimulus, when we are fully or partially awake, and is not to be confused with an illusion, which is a misperception of a real stimulus. Hallucinations are one of the cardinal symptoms of schizophrenia; indeed, 70% of people with this illness hear voices. However, they are not the only ones. In some studies 10% of men and 15% of women in the general population described hearing voices at some point in their lives (Tien, 1991). It is not uncommon to experience hallucinations when we are drifting off to sleep (hypnagogic) or  when we are waking up (hypnopompic). Hearing voices might affect us even more after we lose a loved one; nearly half of recent widows and widowers hear the voice of their dead spouse (Carlsson and Nilsson, 2007).

What is it then that people hear? Hallucinations could be fragments of memories or stream of consciousness, often related to worries, and are more likely to occur in times of stress or tiredness.  The voices could be loud and clear, as if someone in the room has just spoken, or they could be barely distinguishable from our thoughts.

“I hear a mixture of men and women, but no children. They usually tell me to do things, but not dangerous things. Like they’ll tell me to take out the garbage or check the lock on the window or call someone. Sometimes they comment on what I’m doing and whether I’m doing a good job or what I could be doing better.” (Woods et al., 2015).

Since hallucinations affecting healthy people have a similar form to those that torment patients with schizophrenia, scientists think that they are on the continuum of normal perception. Where, then, is the line between ‘normal’ and ‘psychotic’ hallucinations and if we hear voices, does it mean we are at risk of a mental illness? Hallucinations that lead to, or are part of a disorder tend to be more negative and intrusive, and are associated with more anxiety and depression. For example, a healthy person might find spiritual or religious explanation for their voices and is more likely to ‘go along’ with them, whereas a person with psychosis is more likely to think that the voice belongs to a real person and try to resist it. The distress that the voices can cause might create a vicious cycle, where the more the individual fears and tries to avoid the voices, the more intrusive and frightening they become.

Voices in mental illness tend to be more negative and associated with more depression.  Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Voices in mental illness tend to be more negative and associated with more depression.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

“Starting when I was about 20 years old, I heard the voices of demons screaming at me, telling me that I was damned, that God hated me, and that I was going to hell… The voices were so frightening and disruptive that much of the time I was unable to focus or concentrate on anything else.”

The physiological underpinnings of hallucinations are not clear. We know that hearing sounds and voices that are not there activates the auditory cortex in a similar way  to ‘real’ auditory stimuli. The content of hallucinations are probably best understood in the context of the individual’s life, personality and experiences. A simple melody produced by the auditory cortex in response to your craving for ice cream is harmless enough. Similarly, hearing the voice of a dead loved one might be comforting; their voice is imprinted on your brain – no wonder it can be reproduced when you long to hear it. Perhaps the derisive commentary is your internal critic that harnessed the auditory cortex to torment you? One thing is certain: whilst voices can be very distressing and coping with them often requires professional help, they are not always dangerous or a sign of mental illness.

Post by: Jadwiga Nazimek


Carlsson, M. E. & Nilsson, I. M. (2007) Bereaved spouses’ adjustment after the patients’ death in palliative care. Palliative and Supportive Care, 5, 397-404.

Choong, C., Hunter, M. D. & Woodruff, P. W. (2007) Auditory hallucinations in those populations that do not suffer from schizophrenia. Current Psychiatry Reports, 9, 206-12.

Johns, L., Kompus, K., Connell, M. et al. (2014) Auditory Verbal Hallucinations in Persons With and Without a Need for Care. Schizophrenia Bulletin 40 (4): 255-264

Nayani, T. H. & David, A. S. (1996) The Auditory Hallucination: a Phenomenological Survey. Psychological Medicine, 26, 179-192.

Ohayon, M. M., Priest, R. G., Caulet, M. & Guilleminault, C. (1996) Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations: pathological phenomena? British Journal of Psychiatry, 169, 459-67.

Tien, A. Y. (1991) Distributions of hallucinations in the population. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 26, 287-92.

Woods, A., Jones, N., Alderson-Day, B., Callard, F., fernyhough, C. (2015) Experiences of         hearing voices: analysis of a novel phenomenological survey. The Lancet. Psychiatry

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Scientist Syndrome? Check your Symptoms now!

Becoming a scientist is a process that reminds me of the saying, “you can’t see the wood for the trees.” If that’s not immediately obvious, stick with me, you may find that this applies to you too…

When you’re studying or conducting research in the Sciences you’re so busy staring at your data (the trees), that you overlook your development as a person and a scientist (the wood).

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 12.29.54When I started out studying triple sciences at A-Level and secretly hating science, I couldn’t even make the simplest chemistry experiment work. I was in fact so bad that I made myself a comical ‘dunce’ hat to wear in class. And don’t get me started on Physics! My favourite subject was Psychology, which I later pursued at degree level; and although my theoretical knowledge was good, my technical ability, logical reasoning, and practical skills were average at best. The weight of these limitations was a constant burden throughout my career, until mounting evidence suggested what I could not believe to be true… I had somehow unwittingly shed my shackles of ineptitude and become what can only be known as… A Scientist.

There’s no absolute test to see if you have unwittingly become a Scientist. I rather like to imagine it as “Scientist Syndrome” – diagnosed by the observation of a cluster of symptoms. And it’s not an easy syndrome to live with. You can use the following symptom checker to see if you too, have become a scientist.

1) Data Rage: Any reporting of data annoys you.

Do you find that you have to question any basic reporting of data in the media? Are you left with remaining questions regarding the validity of said data; plagued with intrusive thoughts after such an ordeal? Then you may have Data Rage…

Whilst watching BBC News one morning, I learned about the crisis UK milk producers are suffering regarding the price of milk. It sounded quite the dire situation – the price that supermarkets pay for milk has fallen year on year, meaning that some farms can no longer afford to carry on. Terrible news! The reporter went on to present a bar graph of the price of milk by year to make his point. “Great idea”, I thought. But no, this was an epic fail that, for me, completely undermined the story. At a glance I could already see that at least one of the bars was not smaller than its predecessor, suggesting that the price of milk did not fall that year. What’s more disturbing – I had grave concerns that the price of milk from year to year was not significantly different – i.e. it didn’t look to me as if the difference in price was large enough to say for sure that the price was really falling year by year rather than just fluctuating in the normal way prices tend to. To know this I wanted to see the standard error of milk prices for each year. But, to my horror, no standard error was presented. How could the BBC make such an oversight?! Breakfast ruined.

2) Matlabitis: inflammation of the matlab gland.

If you are regularly caught extolling the benefits of MATLAB to your poor uneducated Excel-using friends, then you may just be suffering from a bad case of ‘Matlabitis’. For those (un?)lucky enough not to know what Matlab is – it’s a life-changing ‘high level’ programing language, which is great for management and analysis of large data sets and, which includes a number of useful toolboxes for specialist analysis (like SPM (Statistical Parametric Mapping) for neuroimaging research). With matlab the world is your oyster! And, it’s exactly this kind of thinking that is symptomatic of Matlabitis.

When I started my PhD I did a lot of my data management in Microsoft Excel – nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t easy. For example, in a complex data set you may have many columns of data (let’s say relating some demographic information and questionnaire responses). So far, so good. But what if you want to look at a subset of these data, like only data from males? “Use the Sort function” I hear you cry? Indeed! But what if you want to look at a subsection within a subsection; or what if there are more than two conditions that specify the data of interest (males, over 30 years old, living in South Manchester, who have a disability)? I found this tedious and difficult in Excel, however, in matlab I can write a simple function that loops through each row and selects only the data that satisfy my conditions. If I want to, I can then save it as a new variable (organised like a spreadsheet), and manipulate (organise) it to display however I wish. It’s like a dream, I’m telling you! It’s when you start using matlab outside of work that you should worry…

3) Scientist Syndrome Sleep Disturbances.

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 12.30.07Do you wake up in a cold sweat, wondering whether the analysis you left running overnight has finished? Have you had dreams about your research? Are your night-times plagues by nightmares of mislabelled graphs, insignificant t-tests and negative reviewer’s comments? If so, you may be suffering from Scientist Syndrome sleep disturbances.

You spend so many hours of your life at work that when you leave for home you need a peaceful, work-free environment. However, if you haven’t properly decompressed from the day, you can inadvertently bring you work home with you. This can lead to troubles falling asleep, early waking, and night terrors. One time when I was deep in programming (writing a code – in matlab of course – that would present my experiment on a computer screen) I seriously had a nightmare that I could only talk in ‘for’ / ‘if’ loops and logical statements. I know it’s a common joke that scientists might as well talk in binary code, but this was no joke, it was terrifying!

4) Science-related sight difficulties: You see ANOVAs everywhere.

Like many syndromes, Science Syndrome can adversely affect our senses and our cognitions – the way we think. If you’ve found yourself looking at simple objects of beauty in a new and slightly odd way, or you’ve started interpreting art as science, this may be a sign that you have Science-related sight difficulties.

During my Masters studies, I think I over-indulged in statistics a little, until one day I had a temporary breakdown. I was at band practice with my housemate (we called ourselves The Gamma Band, which should have been an early warning sign of the syndrome) guitar in hand, vocal chords warmed. And then it hit me. The guitar was like a very large ANOVA (a statistical analysis of variance). ANOVAs test the statistical relationship between a number of factors, which can have many levels. In this case the factors were: Strings (with 6 levels, one per string); and Frets (with 19 levels, one per fret). The combination of these levels and factors create distinctly different sounds, and therefore I reasoned that this demonstrated a significant ANOVA. When I explained this to my housemate, she was not enthused. We never spoke of the guitar ANOVA again…

5) SNR hypersensitivity: You explain everything as Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR).

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 12.30.15Have you started seeing your environment differently? Maybe your perception of the environment (what you actually see) is the same, but the way you interpret and navigate it is different? If this sounds like you, you may be suffering from SNR hyperactivity.

I noticed this myself last week when driving through drizzly Manchester. Although well-known for its downpours, on this particular day the rain was happily rather light. I was driving home from the office, listening to XFMs daily feature “that’s good innit” when I had my own “that’s good innit” moment. I found the optimal windscreen wiper setting for the weather conditions. I’m ashamed to say that not only did this realisation accompany a rather long inner monologue which hinged upon scientific concepts but, that I also felt utterly delighted. I reasoned to myself that the size and frequency of the rain drops, along with the velocity of my car had created a deficit in the usual signal to noise ratio of driving. The proportion of signal – in this case, the visual information my eyes could detect about the road, the position of other cars etc. – was lower than the proportion of noise – in this case, the disruption to my visual perception caused by rain on the windscreen making things look blurry. Fortunately this disaster was averted by choosing the correct windscreen wiper speed, which weighed the SNR (signal to noise ratio) in favour of the signal by eradicating enough noise (rain) to drive safely. As Clint Boon of XFM would say – “that’s good innit!”

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you should “get help now”; or to use my (newly) native tongue: “01100111 01100101 01110100 00100000 01101000 01100101 01101100 01110000 00100000 01101110 01101111 01110111”.(binary code taken from

Post by: Gemma Barnacle

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Dementia: hanging on

“I am, along with many others, scrabbling to stay ahead long enough to be there when the Cure comes along’ said Terry Pratchett when donating to research on Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The writer had been suffering from a rare form of dementia, which starts at an unusually young age (he was diagnosed at the age of 59).

Social interactions are very important for the wellbeing of people with dementia. Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut at

Social interactions are very important for the wellbeing of people with dementia.
Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut at

Why is the number of people with dementia increasing? The simple answer is: because we live longer. Some older people experience hardly any changes in their memory with age; many may become more forgetful and think more slowly, but otherwise their mind will remain intact. Age, however, is the greatest risk factor for dementia, an illness that affects 850 000 people in UK and gradually destroys our ability to remember, think, interact with others, live independently and look after ourselves.

Alzheimer’s disease, similar to the early-onset illness that affected Terry Pratchett, is the main culprit in dementia. It is responsible for 60–70% of cases and manifests in the brain as accumulations of sticky protein, which form plaques in the brain. The protein, called beta amyloid, kills the nerve cells and causes the brain to shrink. On the other hand, in vascular dementia (VaD) – the second most common killer – symptoms are caused by problems with blood vessels in the brain. Doctors diagnose the type of dementia on the basis of the pattern of symptoms and the brain images, which show them the areas of damage.

Accumulations of beta-amyloid protein is thought to be the main culprit in death of neurons in AD. Image courtesy of National Institute on Aging, via Wikimedia Commons

Accumulations of beta-amyloid protein is thought to be the main culprit in death of neurons in AD. Image courtesy of National Institute on Aging, via Wikimedia Commons

At the moment there is no cure for dementia. Some medications, if taken early, help to slow down the progress of AD. Medicine can also help with problems that accompany the illness, such as anxiety, agitation and depression. Finding a cure for dementia is, therefore, the great challenge for today’s research. So how far have scientists got when it comes to tackling it?

One of the questions that researchers are looking into is: why and how exactly do the sticky proteins accumulate in the brain? Here, Down syndrome has shed some light on the events in the brain. People with Down syndrome have an additional copy of chromosome 21. Apart from having some level of intellectual disability, they also suffer from increased risk of AD. By the age 65, 75% of individuals with Down syndrome have symptoms of dementia. It seems that the extra copy of chromosome 21 might be responsible for reduced level of a protein called sorting nexin 27 (SNX27). SNX27 lowers the level of beta amyloid by curbing the activity of an enzyme (gamma secretase) which produces the sticky protein.

Beta-amyloid is a sticky protein that forms plaques in the brain. Image courtesy of National Institute on Aging, via Wikimedia Commons

Beta-amyloid is a sticky protein that forms plaques in the brain. Image courtesy of National Institute on Aging, via Wikimedia Commons

Whilst gamma – and beta – secretases increase the production of beta amyloid, their sister alpha secretase, an enzyme called ADAM10, has the opposite effect. It blocks the growth of the sticky protein, whilst protecting the nerve cells. Scientists have discovered that a drug for psoriasis (skin problem) increases the activity of ADAM10 in brains of people affected by AD. However, before this medication can be used to treat AD, it has to be tested in extensive and lengthy clinical trials.

Other areas of science are focusing on the influence of diet and lifestyle on the risk of dementia. Researchers have found that older people who have a deficiency of vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin) are more likely to develop dementia. The greater the deficiency, the greater the likelihood of the illness: the risk for those with low levels of vitamin D was 53% higher, and for those with severe deficiency was 125% higher. This could be because vitamin D is not just a building block for our bones, it contributes to clearing the amyloid plaques in the brain and protecting the neurons. Lack of vitamin D can also cause problems with blood vessels, thus increasing the risk of vascular dementia.

Exercise reduces the risk of dementia. Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid at

Exercise reduces the risk of dementia. Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid at

Finally, some scientists investigating whether exercise can help us keep our brains healthy. Exercise fanatics will welcome the news that even if we carry a gene in which may predispose us to AD, a decent amount of exercise can protect our brains to some extent from shrinkage. ‘Decent’ in this study was equivalent to jogging, walking or swimming for at least 30 minutes a day, as well as playing sports, e.g. tennis, for at least an hour, but also – and this is good news for those of us who do a lot of housework – 45 minutes a day of fairly intense chores.

No ground-breaking news on the dementia front yet then. However, while we wait for scientists to find the cure, we can certainly look after ourselves and if nothing else, give ourselves a better chance of keeping dementia at bay with healthy lifestyle, good diet and exercise.

Post by: Jadwiga Nazimek


Littlejohns, T.J., Henley, W.E., Lang, I.A. and Annweiler, C. (2014) Vitamin D and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer disease. Neurology 2:920-928.

Flier, W.M. and Scheltens (2005) Epidemiology and risk factors of dementia. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry 76:(Suppl V):v2–v7. doi: 10.1136/jnnp.2005.082867

Smith, J.C., Nielson, K.A., Woodard, J.L. et al. (2014) Physical activity reduces hippocampal atrophy in elders at genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 6:1-7

Endres, K., Fahrenholz, F., Lotz, J.  et al. (2014) Increased CSF APPs-a levels in patients with Alzheimer disease treated with acitretin. Neurology 83: 1930-1935.

Wang X., Huang, T., Hong, W., and Xu, H. (2014) SortingNexin 27 Regulates Aβ Production through Modulating γ-Secretase Activity. Cell Reports 9: 1023–1033

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The unsung story of amusia

image03We’ve all seen those contestants on shows like ‘X Factor’ or ‘Britain’s got Talent’ who are adamant they can sing, when the evidence unfortunately suggests differently. We ask ourselves how it is they can’t tell or we leap to the conclusion that it must be a set up. And, while I admit this may sometimes be the case, bear in mind there could also be a medical diagnosis to explain the situation. These individuals may have a condition known as amusia.

More colloquially called “tone deafness”, approximately 4% of the population suffer from amusia. This differs from the self-diagnosed 15–17% who believe they have the condition but are just poor singers – the difference being that poor singers are aware of their difficulty while true amusics are not. Amusics also tend to find music unpleasant to listen to, leading them to try to avoid situations in which they may be exposed – a rather difficult feat given the popularity and prevalence of music in modern society. Amusia can be congenital (i.e. the individual is born with the condition) or acquired (as the result of a brain injury or stroke). While amusia may seem less debilitating than other potentially socially isolating conditions such as dyslexia or dyspraxia, it can also cause an individual a great deal of stress, lead to social stigma and may affect an individual’s ability to process and learn tonal languages (e.g. Mandarin or Thai).

The term amusia was coined back in 1888 by a doctor called August Knoblauch, following the first diagnosis of the condition 10 years earlier. Nowadays, amusia is diagnosed by a set of six tests, collectively known as The Montreal Battery of Evaluation of Amusia (MBEA), which examine an individual’s musical ability for contour, scale, pitch interval, rhythm, meter and musical memory.

As yet, there is no consensus on the neurological causes for amusia but, a key feature apparent in those with the condition seems to be a deficit in fine-grained pitch discrimination (i.e. an individual’s ability to process a small change in pitch, such as a tone or semi-tone). Based on a number of studies which imaged the brains of amusics and non-amusics, two areas of the brain known to be involved in processing music appear to be affected in amusia – the auditory cortex (AC; especially the right AC) and the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). These studies found a difference in cortical thickness of the AC and IFG, as well as a reduction in brain activity in the IFG of amusic subjects compared to matched controls. Amusics also showed reduced connectivity from the AC to the IFG (via a group of fibres called the arcuate fasciculus) which correlated with the degree of tone deafness of the individual, offering further evidence for the involvement of these areas in the condition.

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 21.22.18

Whether someone with amusia can be “rehabilitated” or trained to improve their ability to process tone and to sing in tune is also up for debate. One small study in 2012 which provided five amusics with a 7-week course held by a professional singing teacher reported that four of the five subjects showed improved MBEA scores at the end of the study. However, whether the improvements were significant enough to warrant the time and resource invested into this study has been questioned.

It’s no secret that the term tone deafness is overused. But the condition, amusia, is a long-standing medical diagnosis which can have a significant effect on an individual’s social and educational life. Despite ongoing debate, the areas of the brain involved in music processing (the AC and IFG) differ both physically and in terms of activity in amusics compared with non-amusics. So next time X Factor hosts a “not so musically gifted individual”, I for one will hold my cynicism and consider a more medical reason before assuming it’s a set up.

Post by: Megan Barrett

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5 things politicians can learn from Scientists:

On the 7th of May 2015 the United Kingdom will hold a general election and party political campaigns are now in full swing. As a voter who is currently undecided, I’m fervently rifling through political literature and attempting to navigate jargon as I make my decision. But, as a scientist, I can’t help but feel that politicians aren’t making this decision easy for me. In a funny way, my world is pretty simple. In science, evidence and logic are key and we attempt to follow these to their conclusions. But this seems to be a far cry from the murky world of politics where evidence can be manipulated and jargon and rhetoric hold sway. So, as a public service, I present a list of five things politicians could learn from scientists.

1) There are lies, damn lies and political statistics:

6225881707_9afb3cc3bb_z(1)We live in a world abound with data – from traffic cameras to Google Analytics, computers the world over store vast amounts of information about our lives and the world we inhabit. This is no bad thing of course – knowledge has the power to make the world a better place. However, in unscrupulous or untrained hands, it can also deceive and manipulate.

Data is the currency that scientists deal in and, over the years, we have learned to handle it with care since things are often not exactly how they appear. But, what happens when big data and political aspirations collide?

Any trained orator knows that a light peppering of statistics can seal the deal during a debate, or at least muddy the water enough to breed uncertainty. But, how often do we hear similar sounding stats wheeled out by opposing parties and hailed as proof of very different ideals? Numbers can provide very important insights – but, depending on how you process the numbers, the same data can also give very different outcomes. Whether through honest errors in understanding (yes, numbers are tricky things) or by calculated deception, politicians often throw out dodgy stats in the hope of strengthening their argument and winning your vote – for a few examples see here.

In my opinion, the use of statistics in the current election campaign is doing little more than muddying the water and making the voters’ job significantly more challenging. How many people have the time or inclination to research every figure quoted? Statistics are very informative and key to most policies but, if they are to be used, politicians must also be clear about how the figures were obtained and why they may differ between parties.

2) The world isn’t black and white:

Wouldn’t life be great if all our problems had simple answers? For example, if we believed that all of our country’s financial and social problems could be solved by altering immigration laws, or if I could prepare for the upcoming ‘bikini season’ by simply popping a couple of magic diet pills. Sadly, the world is far from black and white, and oversimplification can often lead to misunderstanding and confusion.

Many voters may crave a ‘quick fix’ to our country’s social and economic problems, just like they may want to lose weight without diet or exercise, but that’s just not realistic! I want to know that policies have been formulated based on all available evidence and that – ‘God forbid’  – politicians are willing to recognise that these may not be perfect solutions and may even require modification in light of further evidence (see point 3). Although hyperbolic slogans may be appealing, it is well reasoned arguments based on clear, well explained facts that will allow voters to really understand the workings of the political machine and enable them to make an informed decision about their vote.

3) Changing your mind is nothing to be ashamed of:

How many times have you heard politicians being slated for performing ‘U-turns’? This phrase first gained media notoriety in the early 1970s when Prime Minister Ted Heath had to dump his free-market economic policy in the face of soaring inflation and rampant industrial action. This decision was viewed as an appalling show of weakness by the Tory right and, ever since, political U-turns have been widely derided by the media.

97338266_ed37f724df_zBut, during the current coalition government’s tenure, David and Co have reversed or rethought dozens of policies, from selling off Britain’s forests to taxing our favourite pastry-based snacks. Indeed, recent research by Ipsos Mori suggests that two-thirds of voters want a Prime Minister who acts mainly on the views and opinions of the general public when making decisions, rather than one who trusts solely in his own experience. In our dizzyingly complex world, I am heartened to know that policies are not set in stone and may be modified in the face of new evidence.

This is largely something scientists have been practicing for many years. In fact, all scientific theories are open for modification in the light of new evidence – many theories are widely accepted and would require extraordinary evidence to change but, given significant weight of evidence, anything is fair game. In the world of science, evidence is the one true king and this should also be true for politics. So, lets stop scoffing at political U-turns and be thankful when politicians admit to learning from their mistakes. In the words of Ghandi, “I am pleased when I change my mind because it shows that I have learned and grown wiser.”

4) Clarity is key:

As a scientist, I’m pretty used to sifting through technical jargon in scientific journals. And this is fine since, as a rule, this type of literature is aimed at scientists with a strong background in that particular field. However, as a science communicator, much of my time is spent agonising over ensuring that the material I communicate is accessible, truthful, representative and unambiguous. This is not an easy task but it’s 100% necessary if I want anyone (no matter what their background) to connect with the concepts I’m trying to communicate.

Sadly, I’m starting to think that many politicians enjoy being deliberately vague, evasive and inaccessible. My head spins with inscrutable statistics, vague and meaningless rhetoric, evasive noncommittal answers to seemingly simple questions and statements with little or no substance.

I recognise that, come May the 7th, the box I tick will be important for shaping the future of our country. So, is it too much to ask that politicians work hard to disambiguate their policies and structure their arguments around accessible facts and figures? In fact, sometimes the whole thing makes me question if any of the parties really know what they are talking about… As Einstein once said, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”

5) Lets move forward rather than shifting blame:

One political tactic which never fails to drive me mad is when, instead of discussing policies on important economic or social issues, parties waste time blaming their competitors for past failings or denigrating their current policies. My personal view on this campaign tactic came to a head in 2011 with the referendum on the alternative voting system, of which (after reading into it) I was in favour.

In the lead up to the referendum, I was saddened to see how much campaign material avoided the interesting facts behind the vote, choosing instead to plaster campaign literature with pictures of the recently disgraced Nick Clegg. This material seemed to be saying, ‘Nick lied to you about tuition fees, he wants the alternative voting system and he can’t be trusted so it must be a bad thing’. Yes, there was more to the ‘No’ campaign than just Nick Clegg’s face, but this message certainly played a role despite having no relevance to the issues being debated.

Again, in the lead up to this year’s election, I’ve seen my fair share of dodgy and largely irrelevant muck slinging, which I will be ignoring in favour of party policies – here are a selection of some of my personal ‘favourite’ dodgy campaign posters:


That’s great Conservatives, thanks for the heads up…but I think I may just read through Labour’s policies and decide for myself if I think they will ‘wreck’ our economy…(still think this one is calling out for a Miley Cyrus reference somewhere)


Have they now Labour? Can I see some proof that this would have been different under your government….or even better, why don’t you just tell me how you plan on making things better now.

Now, I’d be lying if I said that all scientists doggedly hunt out the truth without holding any personal grudges or undermining one another’s work – we’re all human. But, in general, scientists gain funding to further their research by explaining how their work will benefit society and increase our understanding of the world, not by slamming other lab groups or accusing them of bad science. And that’s really how things should be.

So, as an undecided voter, I hope politicians will hear my plea… If you want my vote, come to me with clear, well reasoned, policies. Don’t treat me like an idiot and try to gain my support through hyperbole and muck slinging… I don’t expect you to have all the answers, but I do want you to explain your political stance clearly, listen to my views, base your policies on the best available evidence and to not be afraid of changing your stance in the light of new evidence.

Post by: Sarah Fox

But, scientists are far from perfect! for an alternative view and some advice on what scientists could learn from politicians, check out the new post by Ian Wilson, one of our friends at the Scouse Science Alliance.

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Should science be on the agenda for the general election?

Those of you indexwho live in the UK will by now be unable to move without seeing some reference to the looming election. This year’s ballot results are thought to be amongst the most contentious in recent history. The hot-button issues on the agenda include the NHS, immigration and taxes. But what policies do each of the parties contending for seats in Parliament have regarding science and science funding?

Well, if you look at the key pledges in their manifestos, the answer is “not a lot”. The BBC has listed the top-line issues from the manifestos for many of the parties, including the five biggest UK-wide parties –  Conservative, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Green Party. A quick search of any of these top-line topics does not pick out science or research. Whilst some parties may address the issue of science and science funding in their full manifesto, none of them appear to be campaigning on this issue.

lecture-hallThe closest thing any party regularly speaks about with regards to scientific policy is the environment. This BBC breakdown shows what each of the parties pledge with regards to the environment, with a particular focus on climate change. The parties also have stances on education, although many of the key points focus on primary and secondary school education alongside university issues such as tuition fees. However, they don’t tend to look further into postgraduate education such as master’s and PhD degrees. Only UKIP and the Welsh party Plaid Cymru make any reference to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) degrees in these at-a-glance manifestos. UKIP pledge to scrap tuition fees for those taking a STEM degree as long as they stay in the UK and pay UK taxes for five years after graduation. Plaid Cymru also offer support to STEM students who remain in Wales to study.

But does it matter that science is not included as part of the key election pledges? Surely science funding and postgraduate research is not as important to the country as the NHS, national security and welfare? Maybe not, but there are some arguments as to why it should be given a little bit more focus.

images1Firstly, a lot of science undertaken in this country is funded directly by the government. According to Research Councils UK, the combined spend of each of the government-funded research councils was about £2.8 bn on research in 2013-2014. Most of the remaining research expenditure comes from charities. Indeed, data released by the Association of Medical Research Charities in 2013 shows that the government spend on medical research was about £1.7 bn (split between the Medical Research Council and National Institutes for Health Research) while medical research charities spent nearly £1.3 bn in the same period.

Also, many of the issues at the heart of 2015’s manifestos are in some way related to science and research. The most obvious of these being healthcare, as medical research is responsible for finding causes and cures for a huge number of different conditions. This includes some topics that are very high on many party agendas, including cancer, dementia and mental health. Other issues include climate change, specifically policies on the controversial topic of alternative energy sources, with opinions varying wildly from different parties regarding fracking and nuclear power. Animal welfare is also high on several party manifestos, most notably the Green Party, who are aiming for a reduction of the use of animals in research.

imagesSome of the parties’ other policies could also have an indirect impact on science research and education. For example, UKIP’s plan to remove tuition fees for STEM graduates who stay in the country for five years after their degree ends may impact on people who intend on doing further study abroad. Talented graduates seeking further training abroad is not necessarily a bad thing; they will often gain expertise in new techniques, which they can then apply to research in the UK when they return. The Green Party’s policies on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and animal welfare would have a large impact on the use of these techniques in research. There have also been discussions about what would happen to science and research in an independent Scotland, which is a key aim of the Scottish National Party (SNP).

The science policy group ‘the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE)’ wrote to several party leaders, to outline various policies regarding science in the UK. Amongst their requests were “[a] boost in government and business investment in UK research” and  “[ensuring] that the UK has a diverse pool of talented people … to drive our future scientific success”. Whilst each of the leaders replied to the letter, few appear to have translated the letter’s messages into their manifestos, at least not as a high priority. An exception is the Green Party, who directly reference a pledge to “double public spending on research in the next ten years”, although this does have caveats, as discussed above. An analysis by CaSE suggests that UK government expenditure on Research and Development as a proportion of GDP has been decreasing since 2003 and that this is causing the UK to lag behind other countries with regards to scientific output.

It would be foolish to expect that science funding and policy would be the key part of any manifesto for a general election. However, it is slightly disheartening to see that none of the major parties are focusing strongly on something that is at the heart of so many of their policies. Whoever ends up in government in May, the hope is that they continue to recognise the strength of scientific research in the UK and allow for it to continue and flourish.

For a look at the key pledges in the manifestos of each party, please see the BBC website.

Post by: Louise Walker

Disclosure statement: I am employed by a charity that funds medical research. The views represented here are my own and not that of my employer.

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