After reading in last Sunday’s Polar Times about WIN’s contribution to the UK Biobank project, in which WIN scientists, led by Professors Steve Smith and Karla Miller, are analysing the brain scans of 100,000 participants to help predict future health outcomes, Volunteer X was very keen to take part in another of WIN’s studies. While volunteers frequently express enthusiasm for their contribution to neuroscience research, Volunteer X was particularly animated: ‘Jolly. Full of cheer. Responds “ho! ho! ho!” when amused’ were noted on his file. He was also particularly fascinated by the MRI scanner chamber, and eager to ‘try it on for size’. WIN radiographer, Jon Campbell, notes: ‘some volunteers find the scanner slightly claustrophobic, so we were surprised when Volunteer X described it as “quite roomy” and – oddly – “so free of soot”! In fact, many of the volunteer’s comments during his visit struck us as odd, but, well, this is Oxford, and eccentricity is to be expected.’
However, it was when the MRI fired up and testing began, that the team were in for some even bigger surprises.
Researchers first assessed Volunteer X’s capacity for spatial navigation – asking him to visualise a journey he plans to take – and noticed unanticipated levels of activity in his hippocampus. ‘Call me sentimental, but I always like to begin with Kiritimati (meaning no offence it will always be plain old “Christmas Island” to me), duck into Samoa and Tonga and down to New Zealand, a quick left to Oz before the haze from the barbecues gets too thick, some really hard driving through east Asia, down to India and a hop over the Indian Ocean… all those shiny skyscrapers in the Gulf to have a peep at! … and looping over Africa and the breathtaking views of the Serengeti, before taking in Russia and Europe… lots of lovely whisky there… and then west… been thinking for a twist this year to begin at Tierra del Fuego and work upwards. And then home for tea with the Missus’.
WIN Director, Professor Heidi Johansen-Berg, observed: ‘Volunteer X’s hippocampus was on fire! Further analysis indicated that it was enormously developed, huge, even. Studies of London taxi drivers in the early 2000s showed similar results, indicating the now well-accepted idea that the hippocampus is important in memory, particularly spatial memory which helps the drivers find their way round London without getting lost’.
The team pursued this line of investigation further, to determine if Volunteer X’s episodic memory was similarly extraordinary. When asked to recall an item from the news, Volunteer X looked uncharacteristically sober-minded, ‘It was a bit troubling to hear that the Browns in Basingstoke put up their tree before December… but I understand that they’re baking their special mince pies, and when they deliver trays to the neighbours I do hope that all will be forgiven (even by the Joneses, and I hardly need to tell you what they’re like; but to be fair the anticipation is rather getting to Belinda, waiting to see whether she receives that red bicycle (spoiler alert: I think she will!))… Besides, it’s nothing like the 1840s when the trees first started appearing hereabouts – Oh, the hullabaloo! – and then do you remember 1520? Now that was a year! So I think it will all die down, don’t you?’
WIN researcher, Dr Claire Sexton, commented: ‘the details that Volunteer X narrated were frankly baffling, but the specificity, the lucidity of memory were unlike anything we’ve ever observed, and there were markedly enhanced connections to Volunteer X’s prefrontal cortex. We’ve done quite a bit of research into how lifestyle factors, such as diet, sleep and exercise, affect memory and brain connections across the lifespan. But Volunteer X claims to be 1747 years old, is visibly overweight, nibbled at the office mince pies the whole time he was in the lab, appears to get by on very little sleep, and reported “wrestling the abominable snowman” as his only form of exercise on the pre-screening self-assessment. Frankly these outcomes are inexplicable!’
As Volunteer X’s surprising results continued, researchers gathered around the scanner for the opportunity to conduct additional tests. Professor Holly Bridge, of the Vision Group, was the next to be shocked. Professor Bridge’s research examines the detection of light through the eye’s cones – which function in bright conditions and help distinguish detail and colour – and rods – which are highly receptive and facilitate vision in darkness. ‘The first thing we noticed was that Volunteer X’s cones were distinctly green, and covered with shiny coloured baubles, while his rods featured a red-and-white swirling pattern. In bright conditions the Volunteer’s ability to see detail was remarkable, which he revealed when he produced a “List” containing names, some sort of rating, and consumer goods, all inscribed in microscopic script. But it was his ability to see clearly in darkness that was truly astonishing. It takes most of us about 40 minutes to adapt to dark surroundings. But when we plunged Volunteer X into complete darkness, the scans indicated that his visual acuity continued almost undiminished. In response to our surprise, however, he did admit in a rueful tone that “these almost two-thousand year old eyes” did lead him into occasional errors when surveying his “List”: “Still, I hardly know what they expect when fully half of them are named Olivia or Oliver, and working in a ‘twinkling’ the odd mistake will happen…”.’
Intrigued by Volunteer X’s ‘List’ and the acknowledged pressure under which he worked, WIN’s crack team of scientists studying decision-making, Hunt, Behrens, Woolrich and Rushworth, initiated a final series of scans where Volunteer X was asked to observe the behaviour of an actor on a monitor and class it as ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’. When the person outside the scanner behaved particularly naughtily, Volunteer X’s dorsomedial prefrontal cortex showed an unusually large signal, reflecting how surprised he was by this behaviour. This violation of expected norms, or ‘social prediction error’, appears to be a particularly important signal to Volunteer X in making an assessment, at which point he stroked his beard and made a little note in his notebook.
One outstanding feature of Volunteer X’s test was the speed with which he arrived at his conclusions regarding naughtiness, indicated by the spectacularly rapid reduction in activity in his anterior cingulate gyrus. The team noted: ‘while Volunteer X remained uncertain about the person’s behaviour, there was considerable activity, but once he had come to a conclusion the signals from Volunteer X's anterior cingulate gyrus became considerably weaker. In general, this transition was incredibly fast during our examination of Volunteer X, so much so that we were compelled to question him regarding the accuracy of the judgments recorded in his “List”. Volunteer X again looked thoughtful, and conceded that, to be as fair as possible, he does sometimes “check it twice”’.
To conclude, while Volunteer X’s results lay so far beyond the normal continua that they might prove of little utility in assessing his cohort collectively, he did provide the WIN with much to ponder and with uniformly elevated good cheer. He remained always merry and bright for the duration of his visit, showed remarkable generosity and good humour throughout, but finally excused himself: ‘if I don’t get back soon the elves will go back to working unsupervised on “Grand Theft Auto: Polar Mayhem”. It always makes them so antsy’.
A huge thank you to Professor Heidi Johansen-Berg and the all the team at WIN for their help preparing this story. And a special thanks to Volunteer X for giving up so much time to help with this research, especially during his most busy work season!
Some astute readers will have guessed the identity of Volunteer X(mas): it is of course Widow Twankey.
Written by Alison Brindle and Joseph Ripp