Tag Archives: Who am I

Wonderful Things: Brainbow mouse

This post is written by Alex, a 16-year old student who spent a week on work placement with the Learning team.

The brain is one of the most complex biological organs in the world, and even today our understanding of it is very primitive, but recent advances in the field of neuroscience could help us unpick some of its mysteries…

In Who am I? there is a little mouse with a big secret: its brain glows in a rainbow of colours. The Brainbow method maps out the large labyrinth of neurons in the brain using fluorescent proteins which flag up each individual neuron with its own colour. Through genetic engineering the brain cells in this mouse glow in a spectrum of different colours when under the right light. Brainbow has significantly helped scientists in attempting to map out the very complex, microscopic neural pathways and systems in the brain, using these strikingly coloured (and quite stunning) images.

This image from the Brainbow mouse reveals thousands of complex neural connections

The Brainbow technique is so interesting because researchers could potentially use the neural maps of the brain that it creates, when studying mental activities and behaviours to see what circuits are implicated. Another possible use is comparing these neural maps to see differences in the cellular structure of those with neurological disorders, to those without, in order to help identify and possibly even help develop treatments..

However, one limitation is that scientists so far have only used Brainbow to explore the brains of small animals such as mice and drosophila (the fruitfly), and the human brain is vast and much more diverse in neurons in comparison to these two organisms. There is also the ethical issue of genetic modification when it comes to working on the human brain – as Brainbow does rely on brain cells expressing proteins that have been genetically preprogrammed.

Would you accept genetic engineering in humans in order to get a better understanding of the human brain? 

The Brainbow genetically engineered mouse, and the beautiful image of its brain are on display in the Who am I? gallery, Wellcome Wing 1st floor.

Listen to Your Heart

Dr. Corrinne Burns, Assistant Content Developer in the Contemporary Science team, writes about Listen to your Heart, a Live Science experiment where visitors explore interoception.

How good are you at figuring out what people are thinking? Can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Alternatively, are you cool and collected? Can you regulate your emotional responses?

Surprisingly, researchers think that all these qualities could be related to something called interoception – that is, how good you are at sensing the workings of your inner body, like your heartbeat.

We are very familiar with what scientists call exteroceptive signals – sight, sound, smell and other sensory inputs which comes from outside the body. But until I met Dr Manos Tsakiris and his team, I had no idea that we also experience internal sensory input, produced from within our bodies by our ongoing physiological processes. These interoceptive signals create a kind of constant background sensory noise, and some of us are more aware of that noise than others.

Sections of the heart. Engraving made in Paris, 1864.

Sections of the heart. Engraving made in Paris, 1864. Credit: Florilegius / Science & Society Picture Library

Manos wants to know whether there’s a link between how good our interoceptive awareness is, and how well we engage with other people and our environment. We thought this sounded absolutely fascinating, and so we invited Manos and his research team to do some real live experiments right here in the Museum. Now we need you to come down and take part!

So what happens in the experiment? You’ll place your wrist on a sensor, which will count your heartbeats. Now, without looking at the sensor readout – that would be cheating! – you will be asked to really concentrate, and try to count your own heartbeats.

So this bit of the experiment will tell the guys how good your interoceptive awareness is. The next bit of the experiment will test how good you are at interpreting other people’s feelings, or seeing the world from someone else’s perspective. Or maybe how good you are at regulating your emotions, or whether you prefer to rely on your body or your vision to navigate your way around.

The whole thing will only take ten minutes or so, and you’d be contributing to some seriously cool research. This data could, ultimately, help us to understand how interoception creates our sense of self – that sense that there is a “me” residing within our body.

Manos and the team will be our Who Am I? gallery – every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday until 13th July for Listen to your Heart.