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Forget brain regions, it’s all about networks in neuroscience

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Dr Ginny Smith - Neuroscience communicator and author of Overloaded

Having worked for some of the biggest media outlets in the science industry, Ginny Smith has been making brain science accessible for several years. With the release of her first solo book, she sits down with NR Times to discuss the ever-changing world of neuroscience.

The neurotransmitters in our brains and the chemicals that go with them continue to puzzle scientists and academics.

Making sense of it all is Ginny Smith with the release of her new book.

Overloaded: How Every Aspect of Your Life is Influenced by Your Brain Chemicals explores how chemicals control what we do, from basic survival instincts to more complex processes, like forming relationships.

Overloaded by Ginny Smith

Recognised by New Scientist as one of the top science books in 2021, Overloaded was two years in the making.

One of its central themes is the brain working within networks which are all connected, rather than the traditional notion of individual regions performing specific tasks.

Speaking to NR Times, Smith – who has produced science programmes for the BBC, Cosmic Shambles and the Naked Scientist – explained how changes in technology have brought about different interpretations of how the brain works.

“This idea of regions of the brain that do X or Y is starting to feel a bit outdated,” she said. “Talking to neuroscientists now, it’s all about networks and combinations of regions that talk to each other.”

And this shift in our understanding of the brain could shape new treatments in future.

“The drugs we have at the moment are the best thing that we have, but boosting things everywhere is a bit of a blunt instrument in something so precise as the brain.

“It’s not about if you need something to function, then having more of that is good. No, it’s all about finding that Goldilocks spot.

“One of the things I’m quite excited about for the future is the idea that we might be able to get more granular as to which areas of the brain are actually affected, perhaps on a person-by-person basis.

“It may be that at some point in the future, if you go to your doctor experiencing depression or anxiety, they could scan your brain to find out which area is actually affected and somehow target drugs specifically to that area.”

Overloaded brings together over 30 experts to give a clearer insight into how molecules like adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin work.

These chemicals may sound familiar but they often bring a lot of confusion around what they actually do – something Dr Smith was keen to address.

She explained how the misrepresentation of these substances in the media motivated her to set the record straight with the book.

“I started seeing a lot of mentions of these various brain chemicals. But they were often really oversimplified; like this idea that serotonin is the ‘happiness chemical’.

“It was stuff that takes a kernel of truth from real neuroscience, but simplifies it to the point where it no longer makes any sense at all.

“So I thought that it would be quite interesting to delve into a bit more complexity and find out what is actually going on and how much do we actually know about these chemicals?”

Although now hugely passionate about neuroscience, Smith admitted that she fell into the subject after initially applying to study chemistry at the University of Cambridge.

“The way I’d encountered it before had been much more at the social psychology end of things, but the way it was taught here was like it was a real science where you did experiments.

“The complexity of the subject attracted me to it and I like a challenge. But also that the questions around it seemed so important to me. They seem like such vital questions to answer.”

Dr Smith switched her focus to neuropsychology and from here worked part-time in a lab. Due to her self-admitted short attention span, however, she found herself more drawn to the communication aspect of the field.

“I’ve been talking about the brain to anyone who will listen since then,” she said.

Her ability to make neurochemistry coherent was the catalyst for Braintastic! Science, the platform she founded to educate young people about how their brain works.

“Psychology and neuroscience aren’t sciences you necessarily meet at school. But one of the things I like is explaining that there’s this whole other branch of science that they might not come across.

“It’s important to have a basic understanding of the brain. It can be so useful in so many ways.”

Indeed, a good understanding of the brain is something Smith would liked to have had as a youngster.

“I wish that when I’d been a teenager, I had known a bit more about how a teenager’s brain works. I think it would have made life so much easier.

“Parents also understanding more about how young people’s brains develop would help them understand and relate to them.”

In fact, greater brain knowledge across the board in wider society would be beneficial, she believes.

“I think everyone can benefit from knowing a little bit more about how their brains and how other people’s brains work. I think it would make us a kinder, more tolerant society.”

While covering big neuroscience topics, the book is characterised by personal experiences and stories.

“One of the things I really like when I’m talking to scientists is hearing their passion and their stories for why they got into doing what they do.

“It also shows how science relates back to everyday life. That’s the thing about neuroscience and psychology, it’s all about us.

“I can’t tell you everything about the brain in one book, but I hope it sparks readers’ curiosity, and makes them want to go out and find out more about their brain.”

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Learn more about virtual reality in rehab

Event is an opportunity to hear from expert Dr Katherine Dawson, Consultant Clinical Neuropsychologist.

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An event later this month will give neuro-rehab professionals an opportunity to learn more about the use of virtual reality in the field. 

The virtual webinar, on 26th January at 1.20pm to 2.30pm, features an in-depth talk by Dr Katherine Dawson, Consultant Clinical Neuropsychologist.

A Guide to Virtual Reality, which can be booked by emailing training@thinktherapy1st.co.uk, will cover:

– Growth of digital health

– Virtual Reality(VR) / Telerehabilitation evidence base

– Virtual tour of the Brain Recovery Zone VR platform

– Where does the Brain Recovery Zone sit in a clinical pathway

– Clinical outcomes, case studies, and research trial

Dr. Katherine Dawson has over 15 years experience working in various rehabilitation settings (both within the NHS and private sector) with individuals who have a wide range of neurological conditions.

She has a particular interest in cognitive rehabilitation, and working with individuals and families to manage emotional and behavioural changes following Acquired Brain Injury (ABI).

She is currently involved in research with the NHS regarding ABI and telerehabilitation, and has recently published a book exploring adjustment to brain injury from the perspectives of clients, family members and clinicians. 

In December 2017, Katherine set up a local neuro-rehab service (Sphere Rehab) with her business partner, focusing on community integration post ABI. She also co-founded the Brain Recovery Zone neuro rehab Virtual Reality platform in the summer of 2019. The team are commissioned by several local CCGs and also work within the private sector.

Ahead of the event, she said: “I just wanted to say a massive thank you to Think Therapy 1st for inviting me to talk about VR and the Brain Recovery Zone. Virtual Reality has great potential in neuro rehab – both to ‘up’ the dosage of rehab, in addition to promoting ongoing engagement and self management.

“I am really looking forward to delivering this webinar and discussing some of the clinical outcomes including the work completed together with Think Therapy 1st and other clients.”

Helen Merfield, Managing Director, Think Therapy 1st, which is organising the event, said: “I am really excited about our VR event we have used Dr Dawson on a number of cases with amazing results and her VR really has changed lives.

“So much so that we are partnering with her company Sphere as a preferred provider for both VR through Brain Recovery Zone and Clinical and Neuro psychology. Close working ties can only improve outcomes which for both our companies are already impressive.”

To register for the event email training@thinktherapy1st.co.uk.

 

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Neuropsychology

Sport and exercise ‘have key role in mental health and wellbeing’

The Moving for Mental Health report highlights the role of physical activity in supporting mental resilience and recovery

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Physical activity and sport can play a key role in supporting mental health and wellbeing and helping people to recover from the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report has concluded. 

The Moving for Mental Health report includes better training for health professionals to prescribe movement as a means of effectively tackling the vast growth in people experiencing mental health issues. 

Produced following the onset of the pandemic, the report sets out evidence that developing a healthy relationship with physical activity and being involved in linked programmatic interventions and social networks is beneficial, can improve people’s mental health and wellbeing, and help tackle social isolation.

The project, by the Sport for Development Coalition and Mind, highlights how COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses of single-sector responses to addressing complex mental health problems and tackling growing health inequalities. 

The report recommends physical activity and community sport be further embedded in health policy and integrated care systems while calling for an enhanced role for experts by experience and diverse communities leading in the design, implementation and evaluation of future strategy and programming.

Launched at an online meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Sport, it is also designed to support and inspire public bodies, funders, commissioners and policy-makers as well as community-based programme providers aiming to enhance the impact of movement for mental health.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said: “While Mind’s research suggests that half of adults and young people have relied on physical activity to cope during the pandemic, we also know that physical activity levels for people with long-term health conditions, including mental health problems, have declined. 

“Considering how vital physical activity is for many people’s mental health, it is clear that we need a collective effort to reach those who need support the most.”

Andy Reed, chair of the Sport for Development Coalition, said: “This report is aimed at supporting and informing policy-makers about how we can maximise the contribution of targeted sport and physical activity-based interventions at this crucial time.”

The research was led by a team of academic researchers from Edge Hill University and Loughborough University, and draws on evidence and submissions from over 70 organisations including sport and mental health organisations, public bodies and Government departments.

Andy Smith, professor of sport and physical activity at Edge Hill University, said: “The impact of Covid-19 on people’s mental health and wellbeing cannot be overstated. 

“It has brought to light the significant mental health inequalities which existed prior to COVID-19, but which have since worsened further, especially among those living in under-served and low-income communities. 

“Our research is calling on the Government and other public bodies to invest in the provision of movement opportunities for mental health across multiple policy sectors, and to use the evidence presented as a basis for making more effective policy decisions which benefit everyone’s mental health and which tackle deep-seated inequalities.”

Moving for Mental Health is the first policy report in a series being published throughout 2022 by the Coalition and relevant partners. The reports are aimed at maximising the contribution of targeted sport-based interventions to helping ‘level up’ communities facing disadvantage and deprivation and tackling deep-seated health and societal inequalities which have been exacerbated by COVID-19.

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Calvert Trust announces new trustees

Louise Dunn, Judith Gate, Emily Flynn and Victoria Notman bring their expertise to the Trust, which also runs Calvert Reconnections

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The Lake District Calvert Trust (LDCT), which runs brain injury rehabilitation centre Calvert Reconnections, has started 2022 by announcing the appointment of four new trustees.

Louise Dunn, Judith Gate, Emily Flynn and Victoria Notman will bring their respective expertise to supporting the further development of the charity and its vital services.

Louise Dunn

Louise Dunn is a communications consultant and academic with over 25 years’ experience of management and leadership roles in the pharmaceutical industry and at Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust and Charity.

Commenting on her appointment, Louise said: “As a Keswick resident, I’m delighted to be able to get involved with this extraordinary organisation, that has such a positive impact for people living with disabilities in our community and all over the UK.

“I am looking forward to learning more about how I can help the team and contributing to their exciting plans for the future.”

Judith Gate has extensive experience in the charity and public sectors including leading the volunteering and customer care functions for a national charity.

She currently leads a continuous improvement programme with a focus on delivering efficiency and improved customer experience through business process improvement and digital transformation.

Judith Gate

Judith said: “I applied to be trustee because I wanted to use my skills to deliver as much positive impact as possible. As an outdoor enthusiast I feel a genuine connection to the Calvert Trust‘s mission of making outdoor activity accessible to everyone

“I am really excited to join the board and look forward to using my knowledge and experience to help support the Trust achieve its ambitions over the coming years.”

Emily Flynn has over 21 years’ experience as a military officer and communications-electronics engineer across a wide spectrum of business areas including: senior leadership/board-level management; digital optimisation; resource planning; engineering, operations and risk management; trusteeship; and mountaineering leadership.

Commenting on her appointment, Emily said: “I am delighted to become a trustee of the Lake District Calvert Trust.

“The military introduced me to the benefits of outdoor education as a means of expanding personal confidence and stretching comfort zones in a controlled environment. It also led me to become a mountaineer.

“I hope to be able to bring my previous experience as a leader, mountaineer, engineer and trustee to help the Calvert Trust

Emily Flynn

continue to deliver amazing outdoor education to its participants and to help it grow over the next few years.”

Victoria Notman is legal director at the employment team at Burnetts Solicitors in Carlisle and has over 20 years’ experience as an employment lawyer.

She also has a first-class honours degree in physiotherapy and experience in the rehabilitation and development of adults and young people with mild to severe physical and mental impairments and learning needs.

Victoria said: “I am looking forward to applying my knowledge and skills to become integrated into the fabric of the Trust to such a degree that all the experience I have to offer can really make a difference to the lives and happiness of those accessing Calvert Lakes and Calvert Reconnections.”

Welcoming the charity’s new trustees, Giles Mounsey-Heysham, chairman of the LDCT Trustees, said: “After a detailed recruitment process, we are delighted to welcome our new Trustees.

Victoria Notman

“Together they bring a wealth of skills, experience and shared passion to the Lake District Calvert Trust. We welcome their contributions moving forward.”

The Lake District Calvert Trust has been supporting people with disabilities from its specialist Calvert Lakes residential centre and accessible riding centre near Keswick in the Lake District for almost 45 years.

Calvert Lakes has grown from being the UK’s first dedicated activity centre for people with disabilities, to welcoming around 3,500 visitors to stay each year.

These include individuals, family groups, specialist schools, accessible sports clubs, disability charity groups, supported living organisations and care homes across the UK.

Last year, the charity also opened Calvert Reconnections, the UK’s first residential brain injury rehabilitation programme combining traditional clinical therapies with physical activity in the outdoors.

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