An energising reminder
For four days last September ExCeL opened its doors to the annual New Scientist Live festival. From finding out how a spacecraft landed on a comet to exploring ways to expand consciousness, enthusiasts learned about new advances in science and technology through attending talks and interactive demonstrations. The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London made an appearance with two stands, allowing members of the public could live-stream their heart rate, grow new brain cells by pedalling a ‘smoothie bike’ and experience virtual reality.
Heart rate rhythms and levels of skin conductance were live streamed on a screen at the RADAR-CNS stand, where our team presented our research. These came from wrist-worn devices used as part of RADAR-CNS (Remote Assessment of Disease and Relapse – Central Nervous System) study. RADAR-CNS is an international collaborative project testing the use of smartphones and wearable technologies to monitor conditions such as depression, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. Visitors tried on the different devices used in our study, and younger members of the public played the gamified thinking tests used as part of the the depression study to assess how emotions can affect the ability to pay attention, remember things and plan ahead.
Representing RADAR-CNS at the event was an inspirational experience, not only because it allowed us to share our passion for our research with members of the public, but also to have inspirational and substantive conversations about the future of healthcare with people from all ages and walks of life who find relevance in what we do.
Stepping away from our stand to explore the festival, as a keen cyclist it was hard not to spot the stationary bike from afar. Pedalling this bike powered a blender attached to the front wheel, delivering a tasty smoothie as a reward for one’s exercise efforts. At the stand Edina Silajdzic, postdoctoral research fellow, taught guests that the adult brain can grow new nerve cells and that certain nutriments as well as exercise can influence this process. The smoothie contained berries, nuts and seeds; not only was it bursting with flavour, but also contained ingredients known to promote the birth of new neurons. “This process is called neurogenesis and takes place in the hippocampus, where nerve cells are involved in learning, memory and mood”, Edina explained. Edina then invited us to sit down at a computer and test our cognition through tests used in clinical research and added our names to the leader board.
Returning to the same stand on the next day, I met Dan Stanyon who is a Research Assistant on the REACH study. REACH stands for Resilience, Ethnicity, and AdolesCent mental Health. Adjusting the virtual reality headset on one of the volunteers, he explained that the virtual reality headset will immerse the user into a classroom environment. “Some adolescents may feel threatened by particular social situations they encounter at school, for example if someone says ‘you can’t sit here’ and put their bag on the neighbour chair or if there is background laughter. They may take these ambiguous situations personally and this could correlate with poorer mental health outcomes. In the future, virtual reality could provide a safe environment to explore these contexts with a therapist and build up social confidence”, he added. As part of the REACH study, the team aims to test whether virtual reality can help to further the understanding of how symptoms of psychosis develop and how they can be better managed.
Dan invited us to contribute to the ’Resilience Tree’, a half-meter tree with coloured paper leaves hanging off its branches, where the different guests had jotted down ideas of what helped them feel better when faced with stressful situations. "One way to engage kids to science and realise that they’re contributing to science through their own experiences and their contribution is valuable”, he fondly explained. He believes that these kind of public engagement activities “break down the idea that science isn’t fun” and help to shatter the perception that “science is divorced from the arts”.
Speakers at the event included psychologists Dean Burnett, Nick Davis and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. All in all, this was a great way to connect the work done in mental health with the help of science and technology with society and inspire the next generation of scientists. And for those of us doing the research, it is an energising reminder of why it is so important to power ahead.
[Picture: Jonny Donovan]
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