“I have a brain!” (said the Scarecrow)… by Andy Crawford

I have a brain! I mean I’ve always had a brain but now courtesy of Dr Samantha Brooks and her team, I have proof! I was a “healthy” volunteer for her study investigating addiction and so went over to the CUBIC centre at Tygerberg Hospital to have an MRI scan. It has been fascinating to learn about the different approaches used to improve our understanding of psychiatric disorders and definitely one of the main positives for me coming out here.

Despite plans to dive with sharks and jump out of a plane at 10,000ft, my nerves are currently being occupied by my upcoming seminar. I was kindly invited to speak at the lunch-time Human Genetics Series and so will be “entertaining” my audience about my EUSARNAD experience as well as my PhD work on predicting antidepressant-induced adverse effects. Fingers crossed it goes well!

The first EUSARNAD Colloquium – by Ben Ainsworth

Those of us who were lucky enough to be able to attend the IADS Conference 2013 (in Stellenbosch) had the pleasure of attending the first EUSARNAD international colloquium

After initial introductions, researchers towards the end of their placements were given opportunities to comment on the work they had done. One of the things that really struck me (it was literally the first day of my placement – so I kept a relatively low profile!) was that sharing experiences like this means that we can all learn from the experiences of others. I only had a limited time at the University of Cape Town, so advice from those who had been-there-and-done-that was incredibly useful. This really sums up the whole collaborative process behind EUSARNAD.

Experiences like this are really important for the research group – as well as giving you an opportunity to meet both experienced mentors and enthusiastic researchers, getting everyone together into the same room really creates a sense that you are working together as part of something exciting.

You can read the Colloquium Report May 2013 here.

The benefits of collaboration. (by Ben Ainsworth)

With an incomplete thesis looming over my head (and the first twinges of ‘The Fear’ starting to rear their ugly heads late at night), this morning I thought to myself “oooh – I need to write another EUSARNAD entry. After I’ve cleaned the house. And checked my email. Again.”

I really have been incredibly busy here in Cape Town. Whether that’s due to the aforementioned Fear, or just a comparison against the phenomenally laid-back Cape-Townians, I’m not sure. But Cape Town has just been providing opportunity after opportunity to learn new skills as a psychologist (and, dare I say it, now a low-flying neuroscientist…), from having hands-on experience with a human brain in the UCT Neuroanatomy department to visiting the infamous Khaylitsha township on the outskirts of Cape Town.

I was lucky enough to be working in Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town, during Brain Awareness week – and I got this awesome hat to prove it!


In return for kitting me out with this array of new skills, knowledge and contacts, I have been helping UCT out with a ‘mega-analysis’ of MRI data at the CUBIC institute. It’s really been a useful process for me too – while everyone has been more than helpful in explaining different three-letter acronyms of neuroimaging (and there are a lot – check out page two of this document), the opportunity to actually get stuck in and do something has really allowed me to grasp some of the more unfamiliar concepts.

Typically, MRI information stays within the institute that actually did the research – it’s confidential data about participants, it’s expensive, and everyone has their own ways of doing things (which, in the current academic/financial evironment, people sometimes want to keep close to their chest). But really, there’s no reason why MRI data can’t be shared amongst researchers providing that no data about the participant is attached to it. A EUSARNAD research group lead by Dan Stein is doing just this – turning a collection of smaller studies (10 – 30 individuals) to one ‘mega-analysis’ (around 300 people).

EUSARNAD members get a hands-on learning experience of the human brain (“the texture of a reasonably overripe ripe avocado”…!

But there are some hazards with an undertaking of this scale. Different scanner set-ups, different MRI sequences and different sample populations will all have an impact on results, and it’s important to be aware of these things. That’s why every single scan is being thoroughly quality checked by hand (ok, mostly by computer program, and a little bit by hand), segment-by-segment, until the researcher is happy that all of the data is of good enough quality to draw a meaningful finding about sufferers of social anxiety disorder.

But it doesn’t stop there. The scale of the collaboration means that the quality checking is being done many times over, by a different researcher each time, at a different institution. This isn’t wasted effort – even if it turns out that every researcher churns out identical outputs (which they probably won’t). Every nuance of each quality-checking process of every brainscan is meticulously noted down, allowing a comparison of each researcher. What’s great about this is that it will provide some hard evidence of the pros and cons of sharing MRI data on such a grand scale – and hopefully will promote more collaboration like EUSARNAD in the future.


– Ben

Straight to business (with added FroYo) – by Andy Crawford

After the 11 hour flight to Cape Town I headed to the Green Elephant hostel which was to be my home for the next month or so. The next morning I was straight into business meeting up with the head of psychiatry, Dan Stein, and head of genetics, Raj Ramesar. Despite it being less than 10 minute walk to Dan’s office I still arrived dripping with sweat and was very grateful to be sat directly under the air conditioning unit!

Unlike previous EUSARNADians (not sure if this will catch on!) my interest is in psychiatric genetics. I am working with Shareefa on a cohort of individuals with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) with measures of anxiety symptoms. It’s exciting stuff as investigating unique genetic profiles in the South African population has the potential to discover valuable insight into the genetics of psychiatric disorders.

Everyone in the Human Genetics department was incredibly friendly and when I found out that “cake” was an official bullet point on their induction checklist, I knew I would enjoy working here.

Towards the end of my first full week in Cape Town the other Hum Gen students organised a hike up Lion’s Head followed by some Fro-Yo. We successfully climbed the “chains” to the summit and were awarded with spectacular views of Cape Town, Table Mountain and the surrounding area as the African Sun set on the horizon. However, our journey to the summit took longer than expected and so I’m yet to enjoy the taste sensation of Fro-Yo!

I would say the end of my first full week has been a success!

– Andy (Uni. Bristol)

And now for something different… by Nienke Pannekoek

By Nienke Pannekoek (Leiden University)

Having studied the brain for several years using MRI and by pictures in study books, getting the opportunity to take part in a brain dissection was something I had been hoping to experience for a long time.

Coenie Hattingh, my friend and neuroanatomist, was kind enough to lead the dissection. My colleague Steven van der Werff and I had his full attention and we were able to ask questions throughout. To see a real brain was so exciting!

Coenie explained everything he did in detail. Step by step we dissected the cortex, subcortical structures and the cerebellum. Tracts between various regions were exposed, functions explained, and connections indicated. We even got to do some dissecting ourselves, which is something I had never thought I would do.

As a neuroscientist I have a real passion for the brain. This experience was definitely a highlight of my EUSARNAD exchange and I am grateful that Coenie has shared his extensive knowledge with me. I would recommend this to anyone!


Strength in Depth – IADS 2013 – by Ben Ainsworth

By Ben Ainsworth (University of Southampton)
What a weekend.Kick-off for me was in the middle of last week – an overnight flight from London meant that I arrived in Cape Town with a day to spare before the International Anxiety Disorders Conference 2013 (IADS) – which was lucky, as my poster presentation was left in Gatwick departure lounge, and I had time to contact the helpful guys at Imago-Visual Printing to churn out another copy!
I found time to make contact with JP Fouche at the CUBIC institute in the afternoon, which turned out fantastically: it took a grand total of about 45 seconds in the building before I was observing a cortical thickness scan, after which I was shown my desk and plans were made to share transport to the conference in the morning (something I was pleased about, as a good chunk of my Friday was spent sitting frustrated in Cape Town one-way systems, heading in the opposite direction to wherever I was trying to get to…!).
IADS 2013 was by far one of the best conferences I’ve had the pleasure of attending/presenting at, ever. Having only one speaker at any one time meant that presentations were unilaterally interesting, smartly run, well-attended and all of the speakers were right at the forefront of their respective research fields (granted, there isn’t yet a massive skin-picking field… but it’s on its way…). Tea and coffee (or a variety of refreshing produce from the free smoothie bar) was taken in the stunning backdrop of the Spier Wine Estate, with the striking Stellenbosch mountain range looming in the backdrop. Evenings were spent enjoying the local produce!But for me, the best experience of IADS was, by far, being thrust into the vibrant, surprisingly large EUSARNAD research group that had descended onto Spier. On Saturday evening, at the first EUSARNAD colloquium, established leaders in their research fields were heavily outnumbered by researchers relating to each other on the skills they’d learnt (in institutions all over the world), the relationships they’d formed and the plans they had for continuing their work. As the ‘newbie’, I found it both inspiring and challenging – this lot were clearly no slackers!
Some of the researchers were coming to the end of their respective exchange postings, and about to move on to the next challenge – so the evening was spent enjoying the scenery while they passed on tips and advice they’d learnt while here. For me, it really summed up the driving force behind the initiative: I’ve only been here for 4 days, but I’ve formed bonds with several researchers with totally different skillsets to me who are working towards the same goal – it’s really exciting for the future!
– Ben

Learning the MRI craft (one month to go) – by Ben Ainsworth

I’m off to Cape Town in a little under a month, and recently I realised I haven’t actually seen an fMRI scanner in action since my toddler-sister was unwillingly forced into one by our parents to examine her earache. She’s now 23, so I thought it might be a good idea to brush up on what actually goes on during an fMRI examination.

fMRI is one of the most exciting techniques that psychologists can use to look inside the brain. MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging, which uses magnets to align specific atoms inside the brain in certain directions. The manner in which these atoms line up with the magnetic fields is different for each type of brain matter – MRI scanners can detect this variation and use it to produce very pretty pictures! Functional MRI scanning (fMRI) involves matching these magnetic alignments to specific brain activities – and from there, you can see which parts of the brain are active (and therefore useful) for specific thought processes. It’s all very clever.

I started by reading a few pretty helpful guides online, amongst copious amounts of technobabble (and some highly regarded articles). Because I grew up in the web-generation (we can’t actually read more than one or two lines of text before we start thinking about lunch or X-factor) I ended up watching some helpful youtube videos, as well as a couple of great TED talks.

Luckily for me, fellow Southampton psychologist Kate Sully hasn’t quite finished her experiment looking at whether brothers and sisters of ADHD sufferers have similar brain functioning patterns, and she invited me to spend a Sunday afternoon with her examining 4 teenagers down at the Southampton General Hospital.

I was immediately grateful that I didn’t have to actually learn how to use the MRI machine – a very helpful radiologist (see below – the photo was taken through the doorway as MRI scanners and electronic equipment doesn’t mix too well) took some time out of his day to explain to me how everything works, and Kate took me through a lot of the protocols that are needed to ensure safe working with such a powerful (and expensive) machine.

Although using the scanner seems fun, Kate has assured me that many psychologists’ roles are based around maintaining the appropriate experimental rigour. Still, it was great to see what actually goes on at the lab, particularly because I now have a much better idea of what is achievable in terms of experimental design (read: ways to squeeze an anxiety-inducing inhalation into a scanning room). Later on this week, when Kate receives CDs full of MRI pictures, I’ll be getting my teeth into some analysis.