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Computer-connected brains: science fiction or science future?

Thomas Hall

Thomas Hall

Newcastle University’s Thomas Hall listens to the chatter between neurons to find signals which could help restore movement to people paralysed by strokes or spinal injuries. He describes his research in his commended entry for the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award.

I visit Charlotte on a Saturday morning, arriving to the smell of fresh baking. After seeing her grandchildren, we head to the village hall for a surprisingly competitive monthly bake-off. But I’m not here just for tea and cake. A year ago, aged 73, Charlotte suffered a stroke, leaving her wheelchair-bound and with her right arm almost completely paralysed. One day she was working as a freelance architect; the next, she was unable to even write or dress herself.

But six months later, in 2034, Charlotte became one of around 200 patients worldwide fitted with a revolutionary new medical device called a ‘brain-computer interface’, or BCI.

Back at home, she shows me the scar on her scalp where doctors implanted thousands of microscopic electrodes in the part of her brain that controls her right arm — the part that was ‘disconnected’ by the stroke. Read more

Working life: Carol Robinson

Professor Dame Carol Robinson is Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford. Here she tells us about her working life, from becoming fascinated with mass spectrometry to the inspirational role of mentors.

Carol Robinson

Carol Robinson

I didn’t take the conventional route to get to where I am today. I actually left school at 16, which was a common thing to do in my school at the time. I’d always been interested in chemistry, so I got a job as a lab technician at Pfizer which was my nearest pharmaceutical company.

After working on various analytical techniques, including chromatography, used to separate mixtures of substances, and nuclear magnetic resonance to determine the structure of organic compounds, I found myself in the mass spectrometry lab, which I found fascinating.

I was lucky in that my supervisors picked up on my obvious passion and fledgling ability early on. They encouraged me to take various part-time courses, which after seven years of hard work resulted in a degree and a place at Cambridge to study for a PhD.     Read more

Vaccines and volunteers: preventing malaria with a cup of mosquitoes

Wiebke Nahrendorf

Wiebke Nahrendorf

In her runner-up article for the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award Wiebke Nahrendorf, a PhD student at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, explains why she’s been  infecting volunteers with malaria in the name of research.

Nijmegen, The Netherlands. It is cold and a slight drizzle makes it uncomfortable to roam the campus of Radboud University. It seems like an unlikely place to study a tropical disease. And yet behind the walls of the university medical centre an angry buzz emerges from cups, which look just like the ones for take-away coffee ― only with a bit of white netting on top. The source of the buzzing: fifteen mosquitoes in each pot. These mosquitoes are infected with the deadliest parasite on earth: Plasmodium, which causes malaria. And they are hungry. For human blood.

In the waiting room two dozen volunteers are about to be called in to put their left arm on to a cup filled with these mosquitoes, which, while sucking blood, will infect them with malaria. But HOLD ON! That seems like a terrible idea! Of course, these brave volunteers knew what they were in for and there is a whole battalion of dedicated doctors to check on them 24/7 and treat them if necessary, but still… Why are we infecting healthy Dutch people with malaria? Read more