“Boy Brain, Girl Brain” – A TRIGGER Seminar on Cognitive Early Development

This post was contributed by Lucy Tallentire, from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

boygirlSex differences have been the source of contentious debate in recent years, beguiling scientists, lay people and major stakeholders like the NHS and pharmaceutical companies. There are obvious physiological and anatomical differences between the sexes but cognitive differences are often conveyed through stereotypes – that males have better motor and spatial abilities and females have superior memory and social cognition skills, for example. While there is research to support some areas of cognitive sex difference, recent studies have shown that the magnitude of sex differences has decreased in recent years. This suggests the causes of these differences may have less to do with one’s genetics than one’s environment – that nurture may be just as powerful as nature to one’s brain development. It also provides further evidence for the effectiveness of contemporary social movements to bridge the gap between “women’s roles” as nurturing child-bearers and “men’s roles” as workers.

So what can research into typical and atypical early development tell us about sex differences? And should we be focusing on biology as the route of sex differences?  These were just some of the questions addressed by guest speaker Teodora Gliga, from Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, at a special seminar on Wednesday 7 December. The event was arranged and hosted by the Birkbeck TRIGGER initiative, a European-wide research project dedicated to Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research.

Why look at sex differences?

Hormonal differences initiated by biology and genes affect physical and cognitive development; the genes on sex chromosomes and the levels of sex hormones influence the brain during early development. Many psychiatric disorders are more common either in boys or girls; boys are more likely to develop autism – the focus of Teea’s research – but girls are more prone to anxiety. By utilising animal models of development and human studies that have revealed early biological differences between sexes present even before birth, Teodora was able to explain differences in susceptibility to risk factors associated with autism.

However, that the effect is amplified when the brain is exposed to risk factors or adversity, such as stress, demonstrates that biology is not the only variable in the development of a disorder like autism; recent research by Anne Fausto-Sterling on how best to study difference in infant early development has shown that, although birth characteristics provide a moment to begin analysis of developmental processes that lead to sex-related differences in behaviour and preference, this is an arbitrary starting point. Many of the biologically-oriented studies use prenatal sex differences in hormone production as the explanation for later difference in behaviour but according to Fausto-Sterling, it seems likely that hormones are but one of many factors affecting human foetal growth and development. In this framework, behaviour after birth develops independently as small biological differences are slowly magnified by external influences – social, cultural and environmental.

Case Study: The British Autism Study of Infant Siblings

The British Autism Study of Infant Siblings was established to explore the development of autism in young infants, and to advance and improve early detection and diagnosis. Parents frequently tell medical professionals that they knew there was something different about their child’s development quite early on, often long before an official diagnosis is received. However, it has been hard for researchers and clinicians to know about the very early signs for autism as they typically only see the child when they are over three years old, when a diagnosis can be reliably given. Although diagnoses for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have fallen in recent years, it remains more commonly developed by boys – 1:42 boys and 1:189 girls, according to studies from 2010 and 2014.

Scientific understanding of the neurobiological basis of autism has advanced dramatically in past decades, but there is still very little known about how the condition develops over the first few years. This is precisely why Teea’s team at the Birkbeck Babylab launched the Studying Autism and ADHD Risks (STAARS) project, which looks specifically at the early development of baby brothers and sisters of children with autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit disorders and typical development. The project is notably an output of the TRIGGER programme, as the initiative provided the funding for the research assistant who carried out the analysis.

Of the participants with elder siblings with an ASD diagnosis, 20% went on to develop and get a diagnosis for ASD. The study showed a negative correlation between IQ and severity of symptoms, which provides further evidence that IQ is a protective factor against the development of autism. But Teodora was quick to remind the audience that there is still a lot of debate on these findings – there has not been one specific gene that can explain more than 10% of cases. One must also consider that the symptoms of autism might be exposed more easily in this case study, as it must be conducted on “High Risk” families, where they might be more actively looking for symptoms because of a heightened awareness of autism, and where interactions with siblings with an ASD diagnosis might even be a contributory environmental factor.

Teea finished her presentation with a call for more statistics and better models through which to analyse these statistics. If we are to gain a deeper understanding of ASD, its causes and its early detection, we must focus first on mediating effects that may reveal protective mechanisms, and on increasing our understanding of underlying biology of sex differences and the implications of hormones. According to the expert, “it is a story of interactions between biological, social and cultural factors with cascading effects.”

Further Links:

The TRIGGER team at Birkbeck is currently seeking mentees and mentors for their Athena SWAN mentoring programme 2016/17. The mentoring scheme is open to research, technical and academic staff who work at Birkbeck – find out more here.

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Man Booker at Birkbeck: Colm Tóibín

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard

man-booker_colm-toibin-9722

On 17 October, in a genial, expansive conversation, Colm Tóibín discussed his Man Booker Prize nominated novel The Testament of Mary (2012) with Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing, Russell Celyn Jones. All of the novels discussed at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event, since its inauguration in 2011, have been set in, or concerned with, the past: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (discussed in 2011), The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (discussed in 2013), Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (discussed in 2014) and How To Be Both by Ali Smith (discussed in 2015). Although not set in the past, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (discussed in 2012) proffers a dystopian, alternative present, so it too is concerned with reimagining time. If the other novels covered diverse periods, moving from the rollicking Renaissance to the deadly Reformation and on to the austere 1920s, the bling and clamour of the 1980s and the contemporary digital moment, The Testament of Mary takes us back to the moment at which Christianity was born, an historical event heavily obscured by accreted layers of myth, competing proofs and intervening centuries of weighty theological debate, doctrine and practice. All of these novels are concerned with testimony, authority and history; in particular, who has the authority to speak and which stories become legitimate and enter the official record as ‘History’ – and which are forgotten or even derided, suppressed and erased.

For Tóibín, the task is no less than recovering, or reimagining, the full voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus and the Mother of God or Theotokos, the ‘Birth Giver of God’, in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, among others. Tóibín imagines her less-than-exalted, oblique responses to the life and death of her son and the foundational moments that articulated and established a radical, world-changing new theology and movement. Tóibín’s Mary is not the benign, silent icon we might know from Renaissance paintings or alabaster icons in hushed churches, with her sympathetic half-smile, commiserating upraised eyes and benevolently-inclined head. This is a human – perhaps all too-human – Mary, who wrestles with grief, incomprehension, anger, disappointment and guilt. Mary is deeply ambivalent about her adult son, who, in one of the novel’s most visceral moments, publically rejects her, while she is insultingly dismissive of his followers, describing them as maladjusted miscreants and dropouts – men ‘unable to look a woman in the face’. The two disciples – possibly St Paul and St Thomas, although Tóibín is ambiguous – who hover over and guard her in Ephesus, after the crucifixion, earn her particular opprobrium; she even threatens to stab them if they dare to sit in the chair of her dead husband (and Mary’s refusal to understand herself in divine terms is Tóibín’s quietly devastating challenge to Roman Catholic theology – there is no Annunciation or Nativity in this story).

Tóibín discussed the influence of Greek tragedy on the work, particularly as he was teaching the subject during the novel’s genesis. He wanted to present Mary as a Medea or Elektra figure: a woman who only has power when she speaks. Tóibín readily conceded that the anger of Mary, which constitutes a powerful undercurrent in the story, is representative of the historical anger of women marginalised in, and excluded from, the Church. In the novel, the truth of Mary’s experience is modified by the disciples, who continually interrogate her while using her testimony selectively to build a theology, kindle a movement and accrue personal power. They are uneasy about her stubborn refusal to adhere to the world-altering version of events they are promulgating, although they are painfully cognisant of their need for her as a foundation of their faith and power. ‘Their enormous ambition’, Tóibín observed, ‘is to make these words [of the Gospel] matter’, while Mary is lucid in her understanding that her experience – her testimony – will be discounted and unrecorded. Tóibín was wry about literary-critical focus on unreliable narrators, describing Mary as ‘the most reliable narrator you’ll get’. Mary is clear-eyed about her reaction to key events and the novel’s seminal moment is her fleeing the scene of the Crucifixion, in fear for her life, yet full of shame. To readers who demur at this apparently inhuman act of maternal abandonment – which also muddies the veracity of Christianity’s foundational moment of universal redemption – Tóibín observed that he is uninterested in writing about ‘most people’ or ‘normal people’ – ‘I only write the exception.’

He also confessed that Mary bolting from Christ’s death solved the technical problem of how to present the Crucifixion. For Tóibín, the novel is ‘a secular form […] filled with things […]. It’s really, really bad at divine intervention.’ He joked that it’s hard to imagine a Jane Austen novel in which the action of the plot is suddenly rerouted by God’s intercession. The two other Biblical miracles in the novel – the turning of water into wine at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus – are shadowy and problematic: at the wedding in Cana, the miracle is made somewhat absurd and undermined by Mary’s sceptical first-hand witnessing; while the raising of Lazarus presents a melancholy spectacle, as Lazarus is unable to convey what he has witnessed in death – another example of silenced or discarded testimony in the novel – and those around him are too frightened to ask. Furthermore, Lazarus ‘will have to die twice’, Tóibín pointed out, making his resurrection feel, in some respects, akin to a curse or punishment.

Tóibín was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and he described his youthful recitation of the Rosary as his ‘introduction to beauty in language’. For Irish Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century, as for many Christians in different places and different periods, the Virgin mattered a great deal, as she had suffered human pain and so would listen and respond kind-heartedly to the prayers of ordinary sinners. ‘Nobody prayed to God the Father’, Tóibín wryly observed. Tóibín thus felt a keen understanding of the need of early Christians to worship a mother figure. In the novel, Mary flees across the Mediterranean to Ephesus (now in Turkey), the site in ancient times of the Temple of Artemis – one of the Wonders of the World – and the locus of goddess worship. Mary secretly keeps a likeness of Artemis, finding comfort in the iconic mother figure she will herself become. Indeed, it was at Ephesus in 431, at one of the Ecumenical Councils of the early Church, that Mary was declared Theotokos and the way was cleared for her veneration and worship. For Tóibín, then, Ephesus is the place in which one form of instinctive, almost primordial, goddess worship was institutionally and theologically elided by another, with the object of adoration remaining, in its essential features, unchanged.

Tóibín discussed his own experiences of all-male religious confraternities, including his Jesuit education at a single-sex boarding school, where students were taught to avert their eyes from women. This experience gave Tóibín his sense of what he called ‘men grouped together, being misfits’ – as Mary contemptuously sees her son’s followers. Tóibín was gently satirical about the absurdity of all-male fraternities such as the Roman Catholic priesthood, recalling a visit to St. Peter’s in Rome, when he secretly observed a flock of male prelates silently divested of their gorgeous arraignment by a company of alacritous nuns. Celyn Jones was interested in other biographical and Irish elements of this apparently historical novel, jovially espying traces of Ireland in Tóibín’s description of the ‘dampness’ of a home in first-century Palestine. Tóibín gamely acknowledged this and other near anachronisms that have been pointed out to him, but firmly asserted that there is ‘no such thing as a historical novel’, as ‘the past is a bit abstract’ and ‘contemporary concerns enter in’. In particular, Tóibín discussed how the novel was informed by his interest in the emotional aftermath of terrorist violence during the Troubles and other conflicts between governments and armed resistance groups, particularly the grief of the families of suicide bombers. Tóibín suggested that there may be some interesting historical parallels between Christ’s fanatical early followers – one need only think of the grisly deaths that Christian martyrs willingly embraced – and self-immolating terrorists active now.

Inevitably, there was interest from the interviewer and the audience about public reactions to such a controversial novel. Although affable and droll throughout, Tóibín was steely when asked about his right to pen such a story, absolutely asserting his liberty to write about religious subjects. He joked that there was no outcry ‘in pagan England’ and that the reception ‘wasn’t really troublesome in Ireland’, where a more avowedly liberal cultural environment has been fostered. He remarked that the greatest outrage came in the United States, where people picketed the theatre where the story – which began life as a one-woman play – was first performed. Tóibín sympathetically observed that the emphasis on identity in American society means people ‘take enormous exception’ to anything they feel is undermining their individuality. Although the outcry was relatively muted – ‘there was no fatwa’, Tóibín jested – he seemed entirely uninterested in becoming a poster boy for vociferous debates about religion and freedom of speech: ‘It wasn’t brave’, writing the novel he said – ‘it was opportunistic’. If his models were Antigone and Medea – women ‘strung out with fear – and bravery’ who are obligated to speak the truth to power – Tóibín evidently doesn’t see his work in the same heroic vein. He demurred at the idea of deliberately seeking to offend readers – he found it particularly difficult to depict the brutality and violence of the Crucifixion – but he found himself compelled to tell such a ‘dramatic’ story. ‘Where there is faith, there must be doubt’ and the literary imagination thrives in the spaces of silence and ambiguity that inevitably accompany any official historical retelling of events.

For would-be writers in the audience, including students on Birkbeck’s creative writing programmes, Tóibín joked that a recent root canal treatment had felt akin to the writing process (although he admitted that this simile may have been born of the Valium he was given by his dentist). He emphasised that writing involves ‘all the dull, dull, dull drilling of detail’ and that pattern, form and structure may only become apparent at the end of the writing process. He admitted that ‘technique is not enough’ and, although he was willing to describe writing as ‘mystery’, it is ‘not transcendentally’ so, he insisted. For Tóibín, the mystery is how ‘An idea, an image, a memory or a thing becomes, of its own accord, a rhythm’ and he urged students to write what they feel compelled to write. Writing thus emerges as a process of accretion and problem-solving: ‘Every sentence becomes a way of solving the problem the previous sentence gave you’.

This was the sixth Man Booker at Birkbeck event and this sprightly exchange confirmed yet again the success of this ongoing, rewarding partnership. As Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, observed in her opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge and bringing the best of contemporary culture to the widest possible audience.

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Birkbeck graduate reaches milestone in psychology career dream

graduation_chirantha-ulapane-1114-resizedBirkbeck’s excellent research reputation in psychology attracted Chirantha Ulapane (CJ) to the university, but the evening teaching fitted with his lifestyle as well, and enabled him to combine his study with work as a healthcare assistant. CJ says: “Studying in the evenings appealed to me as it allowed me to gain professional experience alongside developing academically and applying that knowledge into the workplace immediately.”

In addition to combining work and study, CJ played university rugby and enjoyed a good social life with friends from Birkbeck and other University of London colleges.

Although CJ came to Birkbeck immediately after completing his A-levels, he feels that the mixture of ages and backgrounds in his class brought real advantages. He says: “Meeting students of the same age all the way through to already successful professionals expanded my career horizons and also gave me a much clearer career path to take on in the future by listening to so many different experiences.

“The lecturers were all fantastic and very approachable at anytime. At first I was slightly nervous approaching them as they are all revered globally but after having a few conversations with them they were absolutely fantastic to speak with. The lectures were also very enjoyable as they were all interactive and required a lot of student participation, which was what I needed after a busy day at work.”

CJ now plans to pursue a career in clinical psychology. He explains: “To become a clinical psychologist I will need to return to education for my Masters and PhD. For now, I have already attained a position within mental health and I am very grateful for studying at Birkbeck as the knowledge gained from the course has allowed me to progress along the right career path straight after receiving my results. I feel fortunate that I was employed straight after finishing university in the exact industry I want to be a part of but I know that I was able to attain my position having studied at a highly reputable university for Psychology. All that is left me to do is to persevere and keep rising from that position using the knowledge and guidance attained from my time at Birkbeck.”

He concludes: “100% apply to study at Birkbeck. Not only will you be getting a world class education, you will acquire skills and knowledge which will improve all aspects of your life.”

CJ graduates today at a ceremony at the University of London’s Senate House.

Further information:

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Selecting the landing site for 2018 ExoMars Rover

This post was contributed by Birkbeck student, Anja Lanin. Anja attended Dr Peter Grindrod’s lecture, ‘Selecting the landing site for 2018 ExoMars Rover’ during Birkbeck Science Week 2016.

Mars and a rover

Over the last two years, specialist teams in Europe have been working on helping ESA select the landing site for the first European rover on Mars. This is not just a project for PhD-holders, even individual research findings from undergraduate students contribute to the realisation of this mission. Birkbeck students and staff, including the presenter of this talk, Dr Peter Grindrod, have been closely involved. In his talk ‘Selecting the landing site for the ESA 2018 ExoMars rover’, Dr. Grindrod not only brought to light the difficulties in finding an appropriate site in unexplored regions of Mars but also emphasised the problem of balancing safety, and scientific output.

Birkbeck on Mars!

Birkbeck scientists have been directly involved in developing the PanCam stereo-camera system, which is part of the ExoMars instrument payload, led by UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory. This camera will be crucial for understanding the context of rocks and samples investigated by ExoMars.

Risky goals

The ‘search for signs of past and present life on Mars’ is the main goal of this mission, according to Dr Grindrod. The one billion Euro investment will initially rest on the Russian Proton rocket, with an 89% success rate, on the scheduled May 2018 launch date. The precious 300kg solar-powered rover payload is to land on Mars about 7 months later, via parachute and retro-rockets.

Dr Peter Grindrod

Dr Peter Grindrod

Looking for life, but where?

We learn from Dr Grindrod that the rover needs to land on some of the oldest Martian rocks (>3.6 billion years). Why? Geochemical analysis using orbital-based technology indicates that rocks in some of these oldest regions are sedimentary and characterised by hydrated (clay) minerals.

We know that on Earth clay minerals form from the interaction of rocks with water that is neutral in pH and suits terrestrial life. Some of the geologically younger rocks on Mars contain sulfate minerals formed under water-poor conditions and around life-unsuitable acidic water. So we need a site, as Dr Grindrod says, that at one point had some life-friendly water flowing through it depositing soft sedimentary rocks that the rover can get to and drill into.

Access forbidden – the contamination problem

According to Dr Grindrod, the rover is prohibited from landing in what are called ‘Mars Special Regions,’ areas where any terrestrial organisms unintentionally carried by the rover may survive. Thus areas potentially containing terrestrial life-supporting liquid water at present are a no-go. So scientists have been looking for a rover touch-down location in areas where there may have been life in the past but probably not at present.

Zooming in on a landing target

Mars isn’t small, but temperature constraints rule out areas near the cold poles and the seasonally warm southern hemisphere. Equally very hilly areas are also rover unsuitable due to the steep slopes. Keeping these constraints in mind, the most promising geological outcrops scientists were left with covered just 2% of Mars’ surface area. Finally, they had to consider that the rover could land anywhere within a still considerably large ca. 104 x 19 km elliptical area, rather than a particular spot.

Watch Dr Grindrod’s lecture

The chosen few

Two of the eight landing site proposals submitted throughout Europe came from the UK and both made it into the final four.

In the end a site called Oxia Planum was chosen as the destination for the 2018 launch. The location appears to be near the end of an ancient delta-like river drainage network and there may even be different layers present containing different types of clay minerals, possibly suggesting groundwater interaction. However, one problem with this landing site is that some of the surface is covered in small wind ripples – could the small 20 cm ExoMars rover wheels get stuck here??

For the back-up launch date in 2020 two back-up sites have been selected, Mawrth Vallis and Aram Dorsum. The latter location would place the rover near deposits of one of the oldest river systems (now inverted) on Mars and any landing spot would be conveniently located no more than 100 m from a relevant deposit.

Mars, the red planetWhat’s next?

If Oxia Planum for some reason is proved to be not to be safe enough more work is needed to decide which of the back-up sites is best for the alternative 2020 launch. In the end this decision will be up to ESA and the Russian Space Agency.

Let’s remember though, as pointed out by Dr Grindrod, once the rover touches down the scientific results are for us, for every scientist involved, for everyone whose money has contributed to the mission, not just the investors but also the public.

 

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