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Professor Kia Nobre, Director of the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity (OHBA) and Head of the Brain and Cognition Lab, discusses OHBA's work.


Extracted from Issue 1, June 2013 OxfordMedSci News.

The Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity (OHBA) is a new brain-imaging hub at Oxford. We complement Oxford’s world renowned Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB) by specialising in methods to measure brain activity with high temporal resolution. Using these methods we can look at the dynamics of brain activity with millisecond precision. The centrepiece method is magnetoencephalography (MEG), which uses superconductor technology to measure magnetic fields associated with electrical signalling in the human brain. This method achieves the best balance between high temporal and spatial resolution to measure brain activity. We also have ancillary methods to measure electrical signals directly (such as EEG), stimulate the brain, and record various physiological signals and responses during experiments.

Experimenters from many departments use OHBA to conduct their own lines of research with translational, fundamental, or methodological foci.

There are about 25 core members at OHBA. We are a mixed bag. We bring together neuroscientists, experimental psychologists, psychiatrists, engineers, physicists … We spend time understanding one another’s perspectives, languages, and tools.

And, what about your own research? Why is it important?

Kia NobreIn my own research, I am interested in understanding how our perception and cognition are continually and dynamically regulated by a variety of signals related to our goals, expectations, and memories. These regulatory mechanisms require communication and orchestration of activity throughout many brain areas. They are essential to healthy cognition, and are highly susceptible to disruption in neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative conditions. Having contributed to understanding the general principles of these mechanisms in the healthy human brain, we are now investigating how these systems are affected during healthy ageing and in neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases.

It will be important to understand how the regulation of brain activity is compromised in these different conditions in order to identify targets for treatments – be these pharmacological, cognitive, or lifestyle interventions. It should be possible to ameliorate cognitive functions both by mending vulnerable control mechanisms and by relying on alternative, residual functions to compensate for deficits.

What’s a typical day like at OHBA?

OHBA buildingOn Tuesdays, we start the day by filling the MEG scanner with liquid Helium. This requires careful managing of delicate equipment, as well as a serious leg workout to operate a pumping device. A few hours later, we’re back to business as usual. In a typical day, we can scan 3-5 participants using MEG. These can be healthy young volunteers performing highly demanding perceptual tasks, elderly participants involved in cognitive training regimes, young adults with psychosis being scanned at rest, individuals with motor-neurone or Parkinson’s disease performing simple actions, and much more. We also use a ‘mock’ MEG scanner to accustom participants to the experimental set-up and to run behavioural and eye-tracking experiments. In addition, we have behavioural, EEG, and TMS experiments running in the labs. In parallel to the bustle of data acquisition, a lot of effort is spent in quiet concentration. We have large open spaces for analysing our data and for developing new data-analysis methods. MEG data are notoriously challenging to analyse, and the methods are still formative. The analysis group, headed by Mark Woolrich, are major players in developing new tools for localising brain activity recorded using MEG, for studying communication among brain areas, and for integrating MEG and fMRI analysis methods.

And what’s next for OHBA?

We have big and exciting plans over the next years. We will be growing the physical space of OHBA and adding an MRI scanner in order to create an imaging hub for clinical and translational neuroscience. This facility will play an instrumental role in aligning research activities with clinical services. Important foci will be research on ageing and neurodegeneration, and on neuropsychiatric conditions.

How has being at Oxford helped the work of the centre?

Oxford is the perfect place to develop a centre like OHBA. We have a large and thriving neuroscience community interested in understanding the human brain and its disorders. We can bring together people from different theoretical, clinical, and methodological backgrounds and expertise and benefit from a boundless stream of fantastic research fellows and students at all stages. Additionally, we can count on FMRIB to help steer our development.


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