From a Moment of Consciousness to a Decade of Dementia: New Insights from Neuroscience

Professor Susan Greenfield, Professor of Physiology, Department of Pharmacology, University of Oxford

Friday, April 8, 2016, 12 noon to 1:30pm, SuperC – Ford Hall

The Lecture

Most people take the subjective inner state ‘consciousness’ for granted without ever reflecting on what could possibly be happening in their brain each day of their waking lives. One of the stumbling blocks to date has been that neuroscience arguably has lacked a cohesive framework for linking micro- and macro-events in the brain. However, the concept of ‘neuronal assemblies’ is gradually gaining recognition: large scale (tens of millions) neuronal coalitions that are highly transient (sub-second) and which thereby could provide the essential missing link between molecular/cellular neurobiology and the cognitive neuroscience of non-invasive imaging of active brain regions. Once these assemblies are fully characterized physiologically, they could be used to generate, for the first time ever, experimentally falsifiable hypotheses that link subjective experience with physico-chemical events in the brain. When it comes to older age, one of the biggest problems of our time, is Alzheimer’s Disease. Our research suggests that this devastating condition is an inappropriate recapitulation of a developmental mechanism: the primarily vulnerable neurons form a hub of neurons deep in the brain which, unlike other neurons, have retained their developmental potential into adulthood. Since calcium is the final trigger for cell development and since age can be a determining factor on whether calcium entry is good (‘trophic’) or toxic, we suggest that in maturity an initial injury within the ‘hub’ cells will selectively cause mobilisation of a developmental potential that now will prove toxic, and lead to yet further cell damage.

About the Lecturer

Baroness Susan Greenfield is a British scientist, writer, broadcaster, and member of the House of Lords. She is Senior Research Fellow and Professor of Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford University, where she heads a multi-disciplinary research group exploring novel brain mechanisms linked to neurodegenerative diseases such Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Prof. Greenfield has held research fellowships at the College de France Paris and NYU Medical Center New York. From 2005 to 2013, she was Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. From 1998 to 2010, she was director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. She has been awarded a hugh number of Honorary Degrees from British and foreign universities. In 2012, she was selected to serve as the Parliamentary Patron of the Westminster Higher Education Forum. In 2014, she was included in the Debrett’s 500, a recognition of the most influential and inspiring 500 people in Britain. Most recently, she was awarded as an Honorary Doctorate at the Universities of Middlesex and Northumbria.