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Can fish count?

Siobhan Pipa27 January 2014

Can fish count?
In the first Lunch Hour Lecture of 2014, Professor Brian Butterworth (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) asked the rather unusual question: Can fish count?

The peculiarity is not lost on Professor Butterworth, whose introduction includes slides on ‘Why you might think it’s a silly question’: Part 1 and Part 2. But there’s nothing fishy about this topic.

MosquitofishThere are numerous reasons why this could be considered a bit of an unusual subject for a lecture. It’s a common held belief that only humans can process abstract concepts, which numbers essentially are.

Then, there’s the idea that counting is intrinsically linked to language; to be able to possess the concept of ‘four’, ‘five’, ‘six’ there needs to be a counting vocabulary. As Noam Chomsky said: “The human number faculty [is] essentially an ‘abstraction’ from human language.”

What do we mean by counting?
If, like Chomsky, we consider it the recitation of counting words, then any group without such words cannot count. If, however, we define it as the ability to exactly enumerate the numbers in a set; through either identification or discrimination, counting words are no longer essential.


And finally…symposium posters and prizes

news editor6 July 2012

In the fourth and final blog post of a series about the UCL Neuroscience Symposium 2012, held on Friday 29 June, Post-doctoral Research Scientists Fiona Kerr and Oyinkan Adesakin (UCL Institute of Healthy Ageing and UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment) highlight the  poster session and various prize winners in words and video.

Poster sessions
Early in your scientific career it can be difficult to find ways of discussing your research, which is often a work in progress, with a wider scientific audience.

Poster sessions provide this opportunity, enabling young scientists to discuss their ideas and obtain feedback on their work without the nerve-racking experience of an oral presentation.

As a poster presenter at this year’s UCL Neuroscience Symposium, I found it to be a particularly engaging experience, obtaining useful advice and being able to discuss my work freely within the safety of the world-renowned UCL Neuroscience community.

The poster session covered a wide-range of neuroscience topics, from the level of the nerve cell to animal behaviour and diseases of the nervous system, showcasing the breadth and depth of neuroscience studied at UCL alone.

Carl Zeiss PhD Poster prize
A particular highlight of the poster session was speaking to Bethan Kilpatrick, proud winner of the Carl Zeiss PhD poster prize in only the first year of her PhD studies.

Bethan’s research aims to find out why Gaucher’s disease (GD), a lysosomal storage disorder, and Parkinson’s disease (PD), a neurodegenerative disorder, are genetically linked. Using cells obtained from skin biopsies, Bethan’s work has shown that there is a change in the way in which calcium is stored in cells from patients with GD compared to people of the same age who don’t have the disease.


Science for everyone

news editor6 July 2012

In the third of a series of blog posts about the UCL Neuroscience Symposium 2012, held on Friday 29 June, Dr Andrea Alenda (UCL Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience) discusses a presentation by UKPubMed Central and the wider issue of open access research.

Access to research findings has, traditionally, largely been restricted to members of higher education institutions and related sectors that can afford the costs of subscriptions to a great number of journals.

With an average cost of £16,500 per year of journal subscription, not a single institution can afford the costs of subscribing to every existing journal.

For people outside these institutions, there is a paywall with a £20 pay-per-view fee per article to access peer-reviewed scientific research. The open access movement aims to remove these paywall barriers and make publicly funded research outputs freely available to everyone.

Open access hits the mainstream
Open Access has recently become a topic of mainstream interest, with the UK government showing their support by setting up a working group composed by members of academia, publishers and research funders to investigate expanding access to published research.

The findings of the group are contained in the recent Finch report. David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, has indicated that the government backs the move to open access, saying: “We need to make as much as possible, as open as possible, as quickly as possible”.


A vision for multidisciplinary research

news editor6 July 2012

In the second of a series of blog posts about the UCL Neuroscience Symposium 2012, held on Friday 29 June, Ivan Alvarez Ferreira (UCL Institute of Child Health) and Joseph Jebelli (UCL Institute of Neurology) write about the presentations and topics that were their personal highlights.


For a long time, I have been fascinated by the visual system – that is, how do two eyes and a few billion neurons give rise to the richness of our visual conscious perception?

After a few years at university and deciding to take the plunge into graduate research, this question slowly evolved into how can we know the inner workings of the visual system? With this question in mind, I headed down to the symposium in search of an answer.

Neuroscience is a fundamentally interdisciplinary endeavour, from the petri dish experiment in microbiology to drug discovery for dementia, it spans multiple fields as well as multiple scales and sizes. For such a fundamental question, there are answers at every level.

Starting with the very small, I was captivated by a talk by Dr Tom Mrsic-Flogel (UCL Neuroscience, Physiology & Pharmacology) who began by showing this video of neurons firing in beautiful patterns while experiencing visual stimulation, such as watching a movie.

Intuitively, we might say that is all there is to it; a number of cells connected to each other and firing in regular patterns to encode what our eyes are perceiving. This raises an intriguing question: are these connections intrinsic, somehow built into our bodies? Or, is it a result of a free-for-all contest?

To answer this, Dr Mrsic-Flogel showed how we can track the development of neurons in the visual cortex of mice, revealing that signals from our eyes seem to follow pre-determined paths to specific neurons in the brain. But how these neurons wire with each other is relatively variable in comparison.