Last week, Bristol hosted a celebration of Neuroscience. This was a rare chance for those of us outside the field of neuroscience to peek in and learn how our brains work, and why – sometime – they do not.

Brains on Brains

Science, especially science at the PhD and research level, is really specialised, has its own language and is largely mysterious to those of us outside the field. It can be so specialised that even researchers working just a few doors down from one another could bamboozle each other if they did not occasionally step back, dumb it down a little bit, and have to articulate what they are doing using common terms.
Take a few steps further back and you could talk to the public about what you do, and what the latest thinking is within fields (and across them). You could relate your work to people’s own experiences, and devise demonstrations that let them take a step into a researchers world. You could prompt them to think about their own brains, habits and health, and the impacts that some of todays biggest challenges in mental and cognitive health could have.

This is what the Bristol Neuroscience festival, held over three days in March, was all about. Welcoming the public into a fabulous space, and inviting some of the best brains in the brain world to come and talk to them about thier work. The festival took the format of sets of talks organised around themes of general interest, and an exhibition hall where scientists, from undergraduates through to professors, shared simplified views of their research through posters, demonstrations, games and activities. Two days of the festival were targeted at schools, and the third was open to all.

You might be wondering (as I did), just how many people in one city are that interested in these, seemingly esoteric, subjects. Quite a lot it turns out. The stands were perpetually busy with curious visitors of all ages, and all of the talks were well attended. There was a genuine buzz the whole time.


What Remented Learned

What all the stands and talks were doing was bridging that gap, taking really very technical, current problems, thinking and research, and expressing them in terms of what we all do, how all our brains work, and illnesses/conditions that we probably all come into contact with.

Talks on dementia, Parkinson’s, depression, and addiction took a look at what science currently knows about how and why these develop, what researchers think might be the future of treatments (or at least where the research is looking), and how care and mitigating treatments can help with quality of life in the meantime. Many of the researchers and their teams split their time between lab and clinical work. You could sense that there was an equal split in attention between the cell-level, deep-dive science in the lab, and the very personal stories, experiences, care and lives of the sufferers.

It is staggering that, given the prevalence of cognitive decline conditions (like dementia), and mental health conditions (like depression and anxiety) the funding is relatively so very small compared to other big diseases. Drug companies are not investing in these areas because the risks and complexity are so high, and therefore the chances of commercial return from eventually successful drugs is so low. This is where universities, research organisations, hospital trusts, funding bodies and charities have to fill the gap.
It seems that Bristol is a hotbed of research, innovation and great clinical practice when it comes to matters of the brain. Brain sciences, psychology, psychiatry, medicine can take us in many directions, but a lot of the funding and focus is on the health and life quality of sufferers of degenerative and impairing diseases, accidents and conditions, which affect a patient’s cognitive abilities and the relationship between brain and the rest of the body.
Public outreach events like this, can raise awareness of the important work being done, the scale of the challenges, and help in making connections between it-will-never-happen-to-me and our daily experiences.
The Bristol Neuroscience Festival has been a celebration of the mind and brain. The stalls in the exhibition hall may have centred around child friendly games and activities, but the students and professors were only too happy to go as deep as you like about what these were demonstrating, what they were working on, what the collective state of the art is, and where future research is needed. The enthusiasm from these folk was tangible and infectious.