Science Week 2019: A talk on the adolescent brain

Georgina Donati, a Postdoctoral student at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development reflects on a talk given by Dr Iroise Dumontheil, Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience, that explores how various brain networks, in particular, those linked to emotional reactivity, the control of behaviours, and social interactions, continue to develop during adolescence.

Dr Dumontheil started the talk with a short film about the adolescent brain.

The paradox of adolescence, Dr Dumontheil begins, is that while individuals are at the peak of their cognitive ability, they do not necessarily use this ability to make good real-life decisions. This talk explored what cognitive neuroscience has found out why this might be the case.

Across development, the brain goes through a gradual structural process of decreasing grey matter (the cell bodies and connections) and increasing white matter (the fat that covers the connections making them faster).  During adolescence, this is happening most clearly in the frontal and temporal lobes while at the same time cognitive control, social cognition and emotion regulation are changing and developing.

(Lebel & Beaulieu, Journal of Neuroscience, 2011)

Cognitive control: Several key aspects of cognitive control continue to develop during adolescence including the ability to inhibit a response or distractor, monitor, maintain and manipulate information in the mind; sustain, divide or select things for attention; shift between tasks, plan for the future and even try and remember future needs.  The development of these skills behaviourally coincides with brain-based changes in activation interpreted as a process of increased specialisation in the pre-frontal cortex.

Social cognition: Social cognition is how we process, store and use information about other people and how this influences us.

The social cognition between people who are all sharing in the same experience or emotion.

Adolescents exhibit different social behaviours to adults; they struggle with perspective taking but are also more aware of and responsive to social situations.  For example, in a study where both groups partake and are excluded from an online game of catch, adolescents experience more anxiety and negativity in response to this exclusion than adults.  In the brain during social cognition, adults recruit their temporal lobes more where adolescents recruit their prefrontal cortex.  This has been interpreted as a difference in strategy – adults use previous experiences to inform their understanding, whereas adolescents, perhaps lacking in previous experience, rely on abstract thought and cognitive control.

Emotions and Sensation Seeking: There are also changes in subcortical areas of the brain during adolescence which coincides with an increase in emotional reactivity and sensation-seeking behaviours.  Adolescent brains seem to react more strongly to fearful faces as well as taking more risks.  However, this increased risk-taking behaviour is only evident when in the presence of their peers, when alone they act similarly to adults and this effect has been replicated across different species.  Adolescent mice, for example, drink more alcohol when with their friends than when alone but adult mice do not.

At an age when individuals are starting to make their own choices, carve their own futures and develop their own identities, these sensitive exploratory behaviours could have adaptive or maladaptive outcomes.  Scientists such as Dr Dumontheil are trying to work out what factors might increase the adaptive rather than maladaptive outcomes.

Watch ‘The Adolescent Brain‘ video here.

 

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The Birkbeck Training Series: Tailored workshops for counsellors working in Higher Education

Aura Rico, a Student Counsellor at Birkbeck reports on the training sessions for counsellors that was set up last year. 

The UK has a healthy provision of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses for counsellors and psychotherapists. However, for some time it has been evident that there is a gap in the CPD offering for counsellors working in Higher Education, who due to high demand and limited resources, work to a short term counselling model – a maximum of six sessions per academic year.

The third session of the 2018-2019 series: ‘Working with Trauma and Sexual Abuse in Short-Term counselling’ in Higher Education facilitated by Christiane Sanderson who has written and worked extensively in this area. Christiane was a lecturer at Birkbeck for over twenty years.

It is well known that university support services are experiencing challenging times; across the sector, with ever-growing demand and longer waiting lists of students with serious and complex mental health problems who require specialist long-term interventions.

With secondary mental health services being cut or even closed, and waiting lists for psychiatric assessments and psychological therapy increasing, we are faced with unprecedented challenges.

In response to these challenging times, the Counselling Service at Birkbeck University created a space for training and dialogue on key topics such as risk, suicide and trauma.  The intention was to open a space where different university counselling services across the UK could come together to learn from each other by discussing key topics and ultimately better serve the student population.

We were delighted to see the positive response of the sector to our first training series with over 200 attendees.  We were fortunate enough to have experienced facilitators who engaged us all with fruitful discussions.

Given the high demand that our training programme generated and the positive feedback that we have received, we have decided to continue to provide a space for training and dialogue and we are delighted to be launching our 2019-2020 training series.

 

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‘Me, Human’ at the Science Museum: Your 500 million year old brain

Scientists from Birkbeck and collaborating institutions are in the ‘Who Am I?’ gallery all summer to present the ‘Me, Human’ project. Dr Gillian Forrester reflects on what led her to research this topic. 

Me, Human is a live scientific experiment which will investigate how traits from our 500 million year-old vertebrate brain still underpin some of our most important and human unique behaviours – like recognising faces and generating speech. At Live Science this summer you’ll use your eyes, ears and hands to find out more about how your ancient brain actually works. We are a multidisciplinary team of scientists at all levels of our careers from undergraduate students in psychology and biological anthropology to senior academics at leading London universities. We all have a passion to communicate science and demonstrate how we, as humans, share a common evolutionary history with other animals – and to reveal our extraordinary connection to the natural world.

We are all individuals, but we acknowledge that we might have inherited grandma’s nose or dad’s extrovert personality. Have you ever thought about what physical and psychological traits we humans – as a species – have inherited from our ancestors?

As a child, I was fascinated by our closest living relatives – the great apes. I wondered – what do gorillas and chimps think? How similar is their experience of life to mine? I scratched this itch by watching documentaries, reading books and eventually taking degrees in San Diego and Oxford. It was during my studies that I started to learn about brains and how they control behaviour. What struck me as truly incredible was that there are parts of the human brain that come from when humans and fish shared a common ancestor – over 500 million years ago!

As humans, we are able to think and act in ways unlike any other animal on the planet. Because of these unique capabilities, it is easy to forget that modern human abilities have their origins in a shared evolutionary history.

Although we are bipedal and comparatively hairless, we are indeed great apes. In fact, we are not even on the fringes of the great ape family tree – we are genetically closer to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to gorillas. As such, we share many brain and behaviour traits with our great ape cousins. But our similarities to other animals date back much farther than our split with an ancestor common to both humans and great apes (approximately six million years ago). Some brain and behaviour traits date back over 500 million years –present in early vertebrates and remain preserved in modern humans.

It is our similarities and differences to other species that allow us to better understand how we came to be modern humans.

One of our oldest inherited traits is the ‘divided brain’. While our left and right halves of the brain (hemispheres) appear physically similar, they are in charge of different behaviours. Because the left and right hemispheres control physical behaviour on the opposite side of the body, we can see these dominances revealed in the everyday actions of animals (including humans).

Animal studies have highlighted that fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals also possess left and right hemispheres that differentially control certain behaviours. The divided behaviours of these animals provide a window into our ancestral past, telling the story of our shared evolutionary history with early vertebrates.

Studies suggest that the right hemisphere emerged with a specialisation for recognising the threat in the environment and controlling escape behaviours and the left hemisphere emerged as dominant for producing motor action sequences for feeding (as pictured above). The divided brain allows for any organism to obtain nourishment while keeping alert for predators. We can think of the brain as acting like an ‘eat and not be eaten’ parallel processor.

Considering the consistency in brain side across different animal species, it seems likely that there has been a preservation of these characteristics through evolutionary time. Effectively, we have lugged our useful brain and behavioural traits with us throughout our evolutionary journey.

But why should we care?

Little is known about how these old brain traits support modern human behaviours, like the way we navigate social environments, kiss, embrace, nurture babies and take a selfie! – inhibiting a better understanding of how, when and why our human unique capabilities emerged and also how they still develop during human infancy and childhood.

By taking part in Me, Human at Live Science you will learn about cutting-edge research and engage with fun psychology experiments.  This project challenges you to use your eyes, ears and hands to find out more about how ancient brain traits still control some of your most human unique behaviours. Work with scientists to explore how you use a divided brain to experience the world around you. We invite Science Museum visitors to solve puzzle boards, test your grip strength, hold and manipulate objects, recognise faces and react to different sounds. Watch your brain in action, using portable brain-imaging, as you take part in activities that will help us to better understand human brains and behaviours.

The Me, Human team at the Science Museum.

Come and join me and the Me, Human project team on this journey of exploration to find out what it is to be human and how we are connected to all animals in the natural world. Open until Monday 30 September 2019.

Dr Gillian Forrester

  • Director of the Me, Human Project
  • Reader in Psychology
  • Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy
  • Deputy Head of Department, Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck, University of London

Visit the exhibition at the Science Museum, London. Follow the Me, Human team on Twitter. #mehuman #livescience. 

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Birkbeck brings Higher Education to union learners

On Wednesday 26th June, Union Learning Reps (ULRs) and organisers from unions, including PCS, Unison and USDAW came together for Birkbeck’s first ULR Skills Workshop on the theme of bringing Higher Education to union learners. In this blog, event organiser Sophie Swain of Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement (A&E) reflects on the day and the importance of trade union engagement.

My role as Access and Outreach Officer (Adult and Community) involves supporting trade union members with their transition into higher education.  Alongside Birkbeck’s 10% fee discount for trade union members, I coordinate an outreach programme providing information, advice and learning activities for trade union members who do not currently have a qualification above level 4 or whose jobs may be affected by automation.

This outreach work reflects the importance of the trade union movement in promoting learning and development, and I work closely with officials and reps who are involved with supporting trade union members to access further learning.

Together with a toolkit produced in conjunction with unionlearn, June’s event is intended to be the first in a series with the aim of equipping ULRs and organisers with useful knowledge and skills to both help them in their role and in providing advice and guidance for members considering studying at university.

Following an introduction to Birkbeck, attendees at the event took part in a coaching skills session led by Head of Access, Sahar Erfani, in which they were able to put into practice new techniques for supporting members to explore their options around further study. Andrew Liddell from Birkbeck’s Development and Alumni department spoke about Degree Apprenticeships at Birkbeck and Lucy Crittenden of Birkbeck Futures ran a session on how to promote the benefits of higher education to employers. Emily Harber and Andrew Jones of Linking London led an interactive workshop on the various higher education qualifications and the many different entry levels and to finish a number of attendees took part in a campus tour led by a member of Team Birkbeck.

Feedback from attendees was overwhelmingly positive. Sue Lapworth, ULR at PCS’s Criminal Justice Branch in Croydon said “I really enjoyed the event, it was good to learn what Birkbeck can offer our members and to look round the University. I enjoyed networking with other ULRs and the staff at the college, I am in a better position to advise members who may be interested.” Another event is planned for the Autumn.

To find out more about the union outreach work taking place at Birkbeck, email union-learning@bbk.ac.uk or visit http://www.bbk.ac.uk/professional-services/access/trade-union-outreach

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