Mind the Brain

Posted : 22 May 2018

Lauren Gordon, who has recently joined the Behaviour Change Team, shares her day at the Mind the Brain Conference, held by the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

​This event was an excellent opportunity to hear from experts in the social sciences field and learn about current research. It brought together speakers from a range of institutions and domains, covering a variety of topics; the audience being anyone with an interest in understanding more about the brain!mind the brain.jpg

The day was split into three topic blocks: from childhood to adulthood, the effect of health and disease on the brain, and how we can change our brain. From each section something different could be learned to help people live longer, healthier, happier lives.
The first block began with a talk from Katerina Fotopolou, from UCL’s Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology Department. She presented evidence on the importance of something called the ‘embodied relationship’. She explained this to be the link between the physical body and the mental mind, such as how we experience our own feelings and sense of self. This idea is of great importance for good mental health and is the premise behind mindfulness practices. Another talk relevant to the healthcare industry was by Emrah Duzel, who spoke about the problems that ageing populations present. As we age, our brains change physically, resulting in cognitive decline and memory problems; increasingly leading to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Thinking about this, is it possible that everyone would get Alzheimer’s if we lived long enough? If so, what can be done to prevent this? It could be that answer for healthy brain ageing may lie in lifestyle factors such as a healthy diet, exercise and seeing friends and family.

The next block focused the effect of disease on the brain. Anxiety disorders are increasingly common, with over 1 in 3 people in the UK suffering from an anxiety disorder in their lifetime and 50% not recovering from it. Oliver Robinson from the ICN proposed that this is because the causes of mental illness are not well understood, and that current treatments are based only on managing the symptoms. He presented his research of using computational models to improve patient outcomes, which use the cause of a symptom (e.g. being biased towards thinking negatively) to inform the treatment of anxious behaviours. This seems a promising line of research for the treatment of mental health issues. Other talks in this section discussed how anxiety can alter perceptions of chronic pain, and that learning from unique case studies in addition to using modern brain scanners can be useful in understanding the relationship between the brain and behaviour.

The final part of the day examined the idea that the brain can be changed and developed, such as using techniques like education and training in specific working memory tasks. One speaker mentioned that brains are limited compared to Artificial Intelligence (AI doesn’t need sleep, is not influenced by social factors and doesn’t forget things). But on the other hand, the brain is also incredibly adaptable. Tamar Makin spoke about how brain resources can be recruited to work for other body parts, as is the case for amputees and those with artificial limbs.  A fascinating case study of a man born without arms showed how he learned to use his toes as if they were fingers to paint beautiful pictures!

For Lauren, the most relevant talk to her role as a Behaviour Change Adviser, was by Elliott Wimmer, from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging. He spoke about how we learn from our experiences, both positive and negative to shape our future behaviour, decisions and habits. The key point was that habitual behaviours are the result of small positive experiences over time. But it only takes one really negative experience for that behaviour to change immediately (e.g. eating something unpleasant that you had previously liked), demonstrating the influence that the experience of disappointment has on our future behaviour compared to happy experiences.
Overall, the UCL Mind the Brain conference was a great day with many thinking points and take-aways for the healthcare industry. It is continuous learning about current thinking that can really make the difference to Bupa’s products and services and improve people’s health and wellbeing.

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