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How Stress can have a big impact on your brain and memory

by YPU Admin on December 14, 2017, Comments. Tags: Neuroscience, PhD, psychology, and Research

Introduction

Hi I’m Liz, a second year BBSRC funded cognitive neuroscience PhD student. Since A-level I have always wanted to be able to combine my interests in psychology with my interests in physics but was always told they were too different and I would never be able to study both…. LIES! Cognitive neuroscience lets me explore psychology, in my case the effects of stress on memory, while also using neuroimaging techniques (YAY Physics!) to examine the under-lying brain mechanisms involved.  Before coming to Manchester to start my PhD, I completed my undergraduate degree in Psychology with Neuropsychology and my Master’s degree in Neuroimaging at Bangor University in North Wales.

In depth…

How does stress affect memory?

Do you ever notice that some people can just handle stress really well while other people really struggle to cope and forget everything they were doing? This is known as a person’s stress reactivity. Highly stress reactive people experience much greater hormone responses when stressed than low stress reactive people, meaning that in comparison, they suffer more ‘mental blocks’ when trying to compete tasks.  More seriously, however, continual high levels of stress have been linked to serious social and health problems such as job loss, divorce, heart disease and stroke.

Similarly, have you ever sat down in an exam that you thought you were prepared for and suddenly had a complete mind blank? During stressful situations memory can sometimes become impaired leading to these sudden ‘mind blank’ moments where we are unable to remember information we previously knew. These can happen to anyone but do more commonly happen to highly stress reactive individuals who struggle to cope under pressure.

In contrast however, it has been shown that sometimes, learning under stress or intense pressure can increase memory ability. This is because stress hormones help slow the rate of forgetting which can be shown using neuroimaging the highlights brain activity in certain regions. 

What is Neuroimaging?

Neuroimaging covers a range of techniques that allow us to examine the brain and measure specific activation associated with certain tasks. The imaging techniques I use require magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners. With these scanners we are able to explore different features of the brain including the size and structure of certain regions, the connectivity between these regions and the levels of neurotransmitters (chemicals) within different areas of the brain. MRI scans can also be used to explore the function (known as fMRI) of brain regions by examining levels of activation within these specific regions while completing a range of tasks. fMRI is one of the most common methods of imaging shown on medical TV shows- often they show areas of the brain ‘light up’ in response to sounds or images when people in the scanner- this isn’t exactly how fMRI works but the gist of it is about right. 

(Image 2: This is an MRI scan of my brain)

Using Neuroimaging to Explore Stress & Memory

So, using MRI we are able to compare the brain differences between high and low stress reactive people. This allows us to attempt to understand why some people can and some people cannot cope during stressful situations. We are also able to examine the activation in the brain during memory to attempt to compare brain activity to behavioural memory task outcomes. Finding any differences in brain structure or activity between stress reactive groups will help us to better understand what causes this detrimental response to stress that may then allow us to control negative outcomes as bets as possible

 

Going further…

To read more about neuroimaging work, check out this website (https://www.humanbrainmapping.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=1) that explores current work using neuroimaging to discover more about the human brain.

There are lots of cool blog posts and YouTube videos that go into more detail about stress. Here are just a few to get you started:

·         TedBlog- Stress as a positive (https://blog.ted.com/could-stress-be-good-for-you-recent-research-that-suggests-it-has-benefits/)

·         TedEd- Stress in the Brain

·         TedEd- How memories form (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOgAbKJGrTA)

·         Science Central- Stress & Memory (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHl7BewJ0yU)

Finally, The Signal (https://thesignalmag.wordpress.com) is a student magazine founded by students at The University of Manchester and has some brilliant articles for young scientists interested neuroscience, behaviour, psychology and mental health. Issue 1 (https://issuu.com/thesignalmagazine/docs/issue_1_-_stress_oct17) was all about stress and is well worth a read for anyone interested.

 

 

Back to the Future? Look North – It’s Positively Medieval!

by YPU Admin on December 7, 2017, Comments. Tags: literature, medieval, PhD, and Research

Introduction

My name is Gillian and I am an AHRC funded first year PhD candidate at the University of Manchester. The focus of my research is the medieval religious dramas (known as the mystery plays) that originated from areas of the north of England, specifically those associated with the cities of York and Chester, along with those contained in the Towneley manuscript that appear to have some connection with the Wakefield area. I did my undergraduate degree in English Literature at Manchester where my passion for medieval literature soon became apparent. Having achieved a First Class B.A., I went on to study my M.A. in Medieval Studies also at the University of Manchester. Hard work is rewarded at Manchester – I got a scholarship which enabled me to study for a Master’s with all fees waived!

 

In Depth…

Medieval literature may seem rather irrelevant to a modern society, but I believe that there are important challenges that we face today on global levels that have precedent in medieval society. Negotiating borders and boundaries, tensions inherent in religious beliefs and differences, the global economic and environmental challenges we face today – all of these, I contend, were of concern to medieval people who imagined the consequences of these challenges in ways which could appeal to an everyday, non-academic audience. The texts of the religious dramas are, on a very basic level, re-workings of Christian biblical narratives that depict the story of the bible from Creation to Doomsday. But they are also much more than that. People wrote how they spoke well into the seventeenth century (and in some cases well beyond this) and so what you can also tell from these stories is where these plays could have been best understood, in the region in which they were written. They are regional texts written with a preferred audience in mind. Part of the humour which, perhaps surprisingly, runs through these plays, depends upon local dialects – they promote regionalism as a mode of belonging just as much as any religious persuasion. My research is currently investigating the plays’ depiction of Noah and the flood from the three different regional perspectives of York, Chester, and the West Riding of Yorkshire (Wakefield). The questions I am posing are whether the differences between the plays’ dramatization of similar material is influenced by the environment of their production – do they display an acknowledgement of the very real threat of global environmental disaster caused by flooding that is of concern to everyone today? Do they promote inclusive community reaction and therefore action? Or do they display more individual responses that reveal exclusions and self-interest? During the summer months I will be visiting both York and Chester where the plays are being staged again. I want to ask the people who go to see these plays today what they get out of them, why do they still go? Why do the cities still produce these plays? What relevance do they have in today’s society? Can they be produced to appeal to a multi-faith international community, or do the choices taken by the producers of these modern versions maintain notions of civic imperialism and Christian elitism? My research will investigate these plays as transtemporal texts to suggest that each rendering of familiar material has specific differences in order to offer a very regional mode of both belonging and questioning as the following medieval images reveal. The first image is from a manuscript housed in the John Rylands library – look at all the fantastical beasts, and then see how the raven pecks at the eye of the corpse not among the chosen few on Noah’s ark. Were Noah and his family the first boat people, early refugees?

 

 There are twelve people in the image below, but only eight made it onto the ark – go figure!

 

 How do the texts respond to/replicate/question these contemporary images?

Going Further…

(www.inthemedievalmiddle.com) A really useful website detailing the lastest research areas of key medieval scholars and the relevance of medieval literature to modern society.

(www.alc.manchester.ac.uk) A key contact point for all current information regarding entry requirements, course components, etc. in the School of Arts, Languages, and Cultures at the University of Manchester.

(www.luminaruim.org) A veritable treasure trove of free to access information/essays/texts on all things medieval.

(www.medievalsociety.blogspot.co.uk) Blog from the Manchester Medieval Society which is run by current academics who are all at the cutting edge of research in their fields. All are welcome to join and join in!

 

 

Intern Journey: From Student to Staff at the University of Manchester

by YPU Admin on November 2, 2017, Comments. Tags: internship, Physics, STEM, and Students

Introduction

My name’s Jake and I went to school in a small sleepy town in North Wales, followed by sixth form where I studied Maths, Physics and Chemistry A-levels.  After this I was accepted onto the Physics course at the University of Manchester, is one of the most exciting, friendly and liberal cities in the U.K. - a really exciting change compared to the slow pace of life in Wales!  After a jam-packed few years of study, work, fun and travel, I’ve fallen in love with Manchester and now work as a Student Recruitment and Widening Participation (SRWP) Intern at the University.

In depth…

I began university with absolutely no idea about what I wanted to do in terms of a career.  I knew that I liked science, helping people and travel, but there was no particular job that took my interest, so I decided to do an MPhys Physics degree as my science grades were good, I liked Brian Cox documentaries and the idea of academic research, as well as this Physics is a very well respected degree with broad career prospects.

I assumed that over the course of the following four years that I would have an epiphany moment – that everything would fall into place and I would exclaim ‘Eureka!  I’ve found my life’s passion!’, and start doggedly pursuing an exciting career to eventually become a world-leading researcher in an exciting and dynamic field.

To my dismay, this career revelation never occurred, and actually as my degree went on I became more and more unsure about a career in scientific research.  For my MPhys research, I investigated the effect of graphene upon bacteria, in the hope that one day graphene could be used in a new generation of antibiotics.  However, despite the amazing applications of this research I learnt that a career in research is not for me (at least not yet), as I’m not cut out for long hours in the lab and fiddling with computer codes.

But by all means doesn’t mean that my degree was a waste of time.  On the contrary, my time as a student was the best in my life – I’ve made fabulous life-long friends, gained extremely employable skills, travelled to amazing places, and my self-confidence has sky-rocketed.

One of the most important things that I’ve gained is that I’ve learnt much more about myself, and what I like and what I dislike.  I’ve discovered that I’m hugely passionate about science communication, helping people, and spreading public awareness about science, education, and social issues.  I also love working with people, using my creativity to blog and solve problems, and enjoy variety in my work.

I’ve recently began work as a Student Recruitment & Widening Participation Intern at the university and love it!  In this role, I coordinate the University’s Aspiring Student Society (UMASS), which helps people considering higher education to think about their options and gives application and career guidance.  I represent the University of Manchester at UCAS fairs, help organise Open Days, and give talks to young people to help them make more well-informed decisions about their futures.  I work with the public on a regular basis, every working hour is different and I feel proud working for such a prestigious institution for which social responsibility is one of their core values.  As term starts again soon I’m hoping to get back involved with science and LBGTQ+ outreach too!

I’ve got no idea what’ll I’ll do after my internship, but I’m sure as I carry on learning more, getting involved with more things and get to grips with the job, I’ll have a clearer idea of what my next step will be.

Going further…

http://www.umass.manchester.ac.uk/ : The University of Manchester Aspiring Students’ Society – a good resource for anyone who’s considering applying to any academic institution.

http://www.manchester.ac.uk/connect/teachers/students/secondary/widening-participation/ : The Widening Participation programmes at Manchester, which encourage students of all educational backgrounds to apply to Manchester.

http://www.manchestersciencefestival.com/ : Manchester’s hugely popular annual science festival – a great opportunity to learn about different areas of science, its importance and impact.  You can also speak to world-leading scientists!

https://manchesterstudentblogs.wordpress.com/category/jake/ : The University of Manchester’s Student Blogs.  These give a valuable insight into university life and offer tips covering all parts of student life.

 

Food for thought

by YPU Admin on October 19, 2017, Comments. Tags: brain, Neuroscience, obesity, PhD, and psychology

Introduction

My name is Imca Hensels, and I am a PhD student nearing the end of my first year. I am in the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Psychology, where I am a part-time Teaching Assistant and a part-time PhD student. My research focuses on what happens in the brains of obese people when they eat, and how this differs from what happens in the brains of people who have a normal weight.

In Depth...

I started my education at Amsterdam University College (http://www.auc.nl/), where I studied Liberal Arts and Sciences with a major in Psychology. I always really enjoyed studying lots of things and I did not know exactly what I wanted to study for my bachelor’s degree. Studying Liberal Arts and Sciences allowed me to explore lots of things (from biomedical sciences to English literature), and I ended up loving psychology, so I stuck with that. After my bachelor’s degree, I went on to do the MSc Research Methods in Psychology at University College London (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/pals/study/masters/TMSPSYSRES01). This is where I met my current PhD supervisor and where I really started to specifically study eating behaviour, which is the topic of my PhD as well.

For my PhD, more specifically, I investigate what happens on a neuronal level in the brain when people expect to eat food, and when they actually eat the food. I do this using electroencephalography (EEG), which allows me to measure brain activity at the millisecond level. I am hoping that by finding out how obese people’s brains differ from normal-weight people’s brains when they eat food, we will be able to understand why some people overeat and others do not. It might even be the case that my current research will be able to lead to the development of new therapies or even social policies at some point. I would say that in general, I very much enjoy what I do. Doing a PhD is very challenging – much more challenging than I expected when I started – which is usually quite fun because it keeps me on my toes. Of course, the flipside is that sometimes the challenges can get quite overwhelming, leading to a lot of stress.  

I am not sure what I want to do after my PhD. My plan was always to keep doing research and eventually become a professor. I might still do this, but the experience I have gained during my PhD has also shown me that there are many things to do outside of research, or even outside of academia. For instance, being a Teaching Assistant on the BSc Psychology has also made me think about the possibility of going into teaching full-time, because the teaching I am doing now feels very worthwhile and fulfilling.

Going Further…

If you want to know more about the research that my lab group does, please visit our website. (http://research.bmh.manchester.ac.uk/emotionalcognitionlab/)

If you are interested in studying psychology, you can read more about the University of Manchester’s BSc Psychology here. (http://www.manchester.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/courses/2017/00653/bsc-psychology/)

If you want to read more about psychological research in an accessible way I would recommend checking out Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/) and the science blogs from the Guardian for scientific research in general (https://www.theguardian.com/science/series/science-blog-network)

 

Linguistics and the way we learn!

by YPU Admin on October 5, 2017, Comments. Tags: foreign languages, Humanities, language acquisition, linguistics, and MFL

Introduction

My name is Sascha Stollhans and I’m a PhD student in Linguistics at the University of Manchester. Linguistics is the scientific study of language and an incredibly versatile and interdisciplinary subject. Linguists look at all sorts of things related to language, e. g. the structure and sounds of language, how language is represented in the mind, how similar or different languages are, how we use language to express our thoughts, feelings and opinions, or even to insult people, why we talk differently depending on who we are talking to, and so on.

 My research investigates the acquisition of foreign languages, in particular how the languages we know interact with and influence one another.

In Depth…

At school I always enjoyed foreign languages the most. That’s why I decided to study Linguistics and French at University, followed by a Master’s degree in Language Teaching. I like to discover how languages work, how we learn them and what successful language teaching should be like.

 Being a great enthusiast of languages, I’ve always found it unfair that children learn their first language so effortlessly. Why can something so natural turn into rather hard work when we are older? What can we do to make language learning as effective and enjoyable as possible? It was my interest in questions like these that made me choose to become a linguist and language teacher.

 After a few years working as a language teacher, I came to Manchester to take up my PhD in Linguistics. My study explores how previously acquired languages influence the process of learning a new language.

Specifically, I work with English learners of French and German. With the help of a number of experiments, my aim is to shed some light on the way several languages in our mind might influence one another.

 For example, I am trying to find out if the fact that someone speaks French makes a difference when they start learning German. Could the additional language make it easier for them, or might it in fact be a hindrance?

 In order to investigate this, I will conduct a number of experiments with language learners. For instance, I will do an eye-tracking study, which looks at the way our eyes move while we process sentences in a foreign language. Comparing the eye movements of native speakers with those of language learners can tell us a lot about the struggles languages learners have.

 The results of my study will hopefully provide some explanations and help make language teaching and learning easier and more effective. They might help us explain why language learners find certain aspects of the language more difficult than others, and how we could make sure language teaching is more effective.

What I enjoy most about my PhD is that I can combine the scientific study of language with very relevant real-life problems. I’m using theoretical considerations about language and the results of my research study to tackle real problems. And in doing so, I learn something new every day - be it a new fact about language or a new method.

Going Further…

“What is Linguistics?”: a great introduction to linguistics by the Linguistic Society of America

https://www.linguisticsociety.org/what-linguistics

“What do you start with in a Third Language?”: very interesting YouTube video introducing the linguistics research about people who learn more than one foreign language

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9F5Bq_uvbcM

 Multilingual Manchester: a project investigating the over 200 languages that are spoken in Manchester

http://mlm.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/

 About eye-tracking as a scientific method:

http://www.eyetracking.com/About-Us/What-Is-Eye-Tracking

 Some interesting language-related Twitter accounts:

@EvrydayLg, @WorldOfLang, @lynneguist, @TheLingSpace

 The Linguistics department at Manchester:

http://www.alc.manchester.ac.uk/linguistics-and-english-language/