Pint of science festival part 1: Tempted, sugar-coated, and emotional!?!


If you are interested in finding out what today’s scientific research has to offer, but don’t fancy the arduous task of reading the tonnes of scientific articles that are published each year – and would actually like to know what type of research is being done right now, right this minute (before it gets published which can take months… years) – then Pint of Science is just the thing for you!

Our aim is to deliver science talks in a fun, engaging and approachable way by bringing them to a pub close to you. We will bring you the most interesting and knowledgeable scientists around to give a talk about their research.
– Pint of Science

And my did they deliver what they set out to deliver!

The science festival runs for 3 days in 50 cities spread across 9 countries. All you have to do is pick the theme you are interested in, sign up, go to the designated pub and enjoy your intellectually stimulating evening.

Unfortunately I was unable to go to any of the events on Monday, so last night was my very first time. The theme – as in the title of this post – Tempted, Sugar-coated, and Emotional!?!

The night started off with: The mysterious story of self-control. Presented by Professor Ian McLaren.

Self-control (or inhibition) is necessary to help us with control over our behaviour. We actually use self-control in all areas of behaviour. The research done on self-control –or lack off– tends to focus on areas such as alcoholism, gambling, smoking, eating, violent /aggressive social behaviour, and apparently also reckless driving. Their research group is currently looking at better understanding how self-control works, and how we can best train this self-control to help people achieve their goals and resist their impulses – their urges.

They are testing a variety of ways to train this self-control. One is to train people to stop their motor neurons from activating, which is done by showing stop signals alongside images towards which behaviour is required to stop. This is what my research is about as well. What I found most interesting in this talk is their use of a Stop-Change training in their research on reckless driving, where new signals are used at the last minute to trigger a different action. First you are shown a signal that triggers a certain behaviour, but then at the very last minute, before you act, you are shown a different signal. This signal is not to stop you from acting entirely, but to stop the initially intended behaviour, and to substitute this behaviour with a different behaviour.

*Now my thinking was, could this be applied to eating behaviour? Could we use such signals in the supermarket to trigger healthy food choices? Does this Stop-Change training require “signals” to be present in the environment at all times, or would this learning transfer to the existing environmental cue -in this case unhealthy food- and then automatically trigger the change behaviour of choosing a healthy option.*

Although the first talk was about trying to resist our temptations – the urge to eat that third cream cake – to battle unhealthy and risky behaviours. This is great as everyone is so very much aware of the obesity epidemic. The second talk highlighted the bad press that sugar has been getting. Yes of course too much sugar has been linked to overweight and obesity, but what happens when we don’t have any sugar??

Whitepowder and the brain was presented by Dr Craig Beall. Showing us the research his team has been involved in and highlighting that although sugar might be the boogeyman in today’s thinking, we should not forget that sugar is actually brain rocket fuel. The brain NEEDS sugar to function properly. Their neuroscience group has been involved in understanding how the brain functions in diabetics, especially under low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and potentially re-purposing existing drugs, instead of creating new drugs, to treat hypo.

The last talk was about Emotional animals, presented by PhD researcher Jaison Kolenchery, who has done a lot of work with rat models to examine fear and anxiety and the suppression of emotions. The amygdala is involved in the expression of fear emotion. Rats without the amygdala do not show behaviours consistent with fear or anxiety. Humans, with bilateral amygdala lesions do not show fear and are unable to recognize facial expressions that signal fear either.

Along with the science talks and the great atmosphere we were presented with a brain quiz complete with prizes (Gosh it was hard!!), and I won a goodie bag filled with stationary !!WoopWoop!! – only a student gets this excited about stationary –

All in all, I thought it was an extremely successful night and I look forward to tonight – the final night of the festival – Getting Healthy: Never Too Late To Save Yourself


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