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A year on – recap & meeting my crowdfunders

Eloise specialises in utilising immunohistochemical, genotyping techniques and statistics to identify associative risks for Alzheimer’s disease neuropathology from a large population-based brain cohort.

Almost a year ago I released my crowdfunding campaign to collect funds to carry out my research into Alzheimer’s disease. 66 backers from 8 different countries supported me to continue my research for two months. That got me through some tough times last year, and I’m proud to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I am no longer wary about talking with everyday people regarding my research.

What was especially encouraging was meeting some of my crowdfunders. I gave a seminar late last year, which was attended mostly by family members, and friends and family have inquired how much my research is progressing through normal discussions about daily life. Surprisingly, the majority of my backers did not want anything for their support, apart from the knowledge that they were helping me out. This was quite a shock to me, but has led me to believe I should make the effort to be open about what I do, because to the general public what I do might seem daunting.

I had the very special experience in early Autumn last year to meet some of my crowdfunders in person, and show them around the laboratories. We sat down for almost 2 hours in total and enjoyed a discussion of my research, their queries about Alzheimer’s disease, and some common problems with research on Alzheimer’s disease. It was a pleasant meeting and I was humbled by their interest and encouragement, and at how my campaign had appealed to them.

One year on from my campaign, I have released two publications, below are the links to the abstracts:

  1. Beer Drinking Associates with Lower Burden of Amyloid Beta Aggregation in the Brain: Helsinki Sudden Death Series.
  2. HSV presence in brains of individuals without dementia: the TASTY brain series

I also have a further one under review with my collaborators in Sweden.

I was also requested to write a special piece for a Finnish journal, and currently my funding situation is comfortable until after the summer. I am waiting to hear back on my personal funding applications over the next couple of months, but it’s inspiring to know that I have my colleagues, collaborators, funders, friends, and family around to support me if things get bad again in the future.

I have many new topics that have become interesting to me, and hopefully I will be able to get started on these and share some insight on them in the coming months as I take more confident steps into my career as an academic researcher. One of the topics is the (much neglected) connection between cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s and I will be continuing investigations into Herpes simplex as a pathogenic agent in AD.

Once again, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my crowdfunding supporters for their belief in my research, and me as a researcher.

Until next time!

Other blogs from Eloise:

Could getting a cold sore increase risk of Alzheimer’s?

Painful Science – getting published is tough!

Should scientists learn to pitch?

Surprising findings for beer and Alzheimer’s related brain lesion

My science crowdfunding experience

Should scientists learn to pitch?

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Innovation and Research Communication Competition

At the beginning of June 2016, I was selected as a finalist in a competition about innovation in scientific research communication. The reason for my nomination was specifically related to my crowdfunding campaign on Walacea and the supposedly novel way I communicated my Alzheimer’s research to the public. The campaign involved a short video which I did in the lab, some written text and offering a few perks to people who supported my work from seminars to a simple postcard. As a result of the campaign I found that people were actually quite curious about my work and interested in what I had to say about it.  Before the campaign I’d assumed that talking about my research with any level of details was likely to be a conversation killer!

The competition  was a fun and enjoyable experience and the winner took home €3000 (which would have been nice). The run up culminated in an online voting system, which I’ll admit I wasn’t prepared for – it involved background work and lots of marketing to my network.  As the only single individual of the 6 finalists (the rest were organisations or collective groups), I was largely doing it on my own which was tough, but I was proud of my efforts and really want to thank my friend Iita for nominating me, the organisers for selecting me, and of course everyone who has supported me throughout the whole (crowdfunding) ordeal! I came runner up out of the 6 finalists which is a a great achievement for me.

This whole event and the social and research aspects of the concept of research communication were very new to me. I took on crowdfunding as a means to acquire financial support and continue the research I enjoy, and learnt the basics as I went. The further on in my campaign, the more I realised what was at stake,  what was required and that more effort lead to more financial support.  In addition good communication was vital! The campaign also gave me a broader view on things that go wrong in science and how engaging the public is a useful and important part of being a scientist.

So, should scientists pitch for funding?

Startup @ Reeperbahnfestival

During the Competition day, I took part in a workshop on the ABC in Pitching. In science, this is not a particularly strong point of interest. People give presentations on their work at conferences and seminars, and some also lecture to students or teach laboratory groups. They usually involve one topic and range in time from 20 minutes up to an hour or more. Plenty of time to get around to what you want to say, and also on the odd occasion to bore people’s pants off.

Pitching is what I imagined entrepreneurs do to get funding to support their business idea and get it off the ground. Wait. Those essential elements are what we as scientists are trying to do. Once you get the ball rolling with support and publications, then things usually take on (to some degree) a life of their own. But in the beginning, you have to put in the hard work.

I now realise more than ever that pitching should be an integral part of a scientist’s every day means. ‘Elevator pitches’ should be the correct way to grab the attention of funding agencies as well as members of the public through crowdfunding and make them interested enough to read on, ask questions and hopefully potentially fund you.  Entrepreneurs would never send a full business plan to a potential investor from the gecko, they send pitch decks, executive summaries and arrange meetings and events…this system works for business so just maybe it could work for science and save everyone lots of time in terms of writing and reading grant proposals?! And infact, this is the system that crowdfunding is using where scientists can create a 5 minute video pitch about their work than a more detailed explanation of what they plan to do.  It worked for my campaign and perhaps with even more pitch practice next time it could work out even better!

Are women taking the helm in Science Communication? 

On a side note, at the competition one thing that struck me about the whole event was the gender difference. The majority of the people there either representing the finalists, or listening and at work promoting science, were female. There was a massive majority of women participants – almost to the realm of 90%!

I was surprised and commented on a number of occasions to different individuals, both male and female, and there was a general consensus that others were surprised too. One comment from a fellow (male) contestant was that if women are going to be the face of science, then that would be okay by him. Is it the age where we start making science sexy too, I wonder? Although that thought shocks me a bit and some of the kit we wear may need a bit of design work…

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I wondered whether this was just a product of the fact this competition was held in Finland with primarily Finnish participants, or whether science communication is primarily undertaken by women throughout the world. A quick google of the topic seems to suggest that “women are more suited to communicating due to their natural style of communication,” thus indicating that perhaps it is not a phenomenon known only to Finland.

In any case, I must admit that I myself have found a fair amount of satisfaction and pleasure in sharing my research and also my experiences through my crowdfunding campaign, radio, magazine, newspaper and tv interviews, as well as this blog, and the continual contact I keep with my supporters and followers. I hope that I continue to be as well received! Thanks for tuning in again!

 

Surprising findings for beer and Alzheimer’s related brain lesions

Could beer have some positive effects on the brain and memory? Eloise, who recently crowdfunded on Walacea has just had a manuscript accepted for publication and she explains about her journey to get there and gives us a few insights into her recent taste of the media limelight in Finland

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Image: Thinkstock

Can scientists be media personalities?

In keeping with the idea that scientists can also be media personalities, I’ve just received an email to be interviewed for a women’s magazine here in Finland. Yes, it’s true. I’m not really sure of the positive fluffy role model image that I could provide, but they are interested in hearing about my crowdfunding adventure. As a colleague earlier said to me “It’s not bad if a scientist is in the news in a positive light”. Well….ok, I’ll go with it.

But I should backtrack a little. I had my manuscript accepted for publication a while back and this week was the early view publication release. Now, that’s nothing to rejoice at in the world of science – although let’s be fair, I haven’t had an article published in four years, so I’m pretty ecstatic about the whole thing – but I believed the concept would appeal to the general population, so thought I’d jump on the bandwagon of press release accompanying research method.

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Well…it certainly has appealed to the public. An article on the University’s website (coupled with an English version – these guys are really getting to know me now!), plus an article in the local paper. Not to sound too arrogant or anything, but that’s kinda THE DREAM….for a scientist. To get your research read by every day people thinking you’re on the way to a cure for such and such a disease. Because let’s be honest, as scientists we all believe our research is finding the ultimate answer to this or that.

I do know however, how the media take your results and rewrite them the way that makes it seem like you HAVE found the cure. Boy have they done that. How many times do we have to read about the next ‘cure for cancer’ or something? Well that’s kind of what they did with my research. But I’m still excited about it, and if you’re interested in actually hearing more about it from my perspective rather than the media’s, I’ll attempt to explain the research itself and the implications.

I was given an older autopsy series to work with on this topic, (compared to the one I usually work with) which had brain lesion data (information about whether the individual had amyloid beta aggregations or plaques) and alcohol consumption data. Amyloid beta aggregations are thought to be the cause behind Alzheimer’s disease. The protein accumulates in clumps and is believed to cause the death of neutrons, which leads to the associated memory loss. The alcohol consumption information involved types of alcohol drunk and an estimate of how much (note this is retrospective data, which is less strong than data collected in real time). The alcohol data came from relatives of the deceased, so to be fair, it’s not entirely rock-solid info. However, it’s interesting enough to show some insight into how these people lived. You’d be amazed at how much you can divulge on a person’s habits when you really think about it.

One final point is that the cohort is a non-demented cohort, meaning that none of them are cognitively impaired, although some had the brain lesions. This could mean that they would have developed dementia if they had lived longer, or may alternatively suggest that these lesions can occur without dementia and there is something else required to cause Alzheimer’s disease.

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Fig 2 shows that beer drinkers had less than half the amount of amyloid beta-immunoreactivity compared with non-beer drinkers. Amyloid-beta aggregations are strongly associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

I’ll focus on our most interesting results to keep it simple. We measured the amyloid beta aggregations as a dichotomous variable (present or not) and had a look whether any alcohol amounts or types were statistically associated with the brain lesions. In one of those beautiful eureka moments, the statistical program I use (SPSS, in case you’re wondering) spat out a nice significant result. Beer drinkers were less likely to have amyloid beta aggregations in their brains than drinkers of other types of alcohol.

So does that mean beer is good for you?

Yes, it is possible that beer could be good for you! But before we go jumping to extravagant conclusions, let me bring you back down to the ground. This was quite a small study (125 males – which means the results cannot be assumed to apply automatically to women – sorry ladies!) and when we investigated further it seemed that age had a large part to do with the effect. But this isn’t the end of the story. I have another larger cohort with similar information (with both males and females) where I will look to see if I can find similar results.

Of course it will also be nice to back up our results with a substantial theory as to how and why we found this result. Our thinking is that beer has a number of nutrients that are involved in important mechanisms in keeping cells functioning well. So another step will be to see if we can measure certain metabolites to corroborate our story, of which I’ve made a new collaboration to tackle this topic, through the sharing of my research!

So yeah, beer could potentially be good for your brain. But as I should point out all things should be enjoyed in moderation and a full healthy diet with exercise should be paramount to living a healthy long life!

Read the full article here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/acer.13102/abstract

Dating clams to study pollution history on St. Croix, US Virgin Islands

Underwater seagrass meadows are disappearing fast, Dr. Kelsey Feser investigates why with the support of the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI). 

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Dr. Kelsey Feser

The Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in Ithaca, New York, USA is currently running a campaign to support its new dating laboratory.  Before you jump to conclusions, this is not a lab taking the likes of tinder to a new scientific level, it is a lab for gauging the ages of biominerals such as seashells and bones using a technique known as amino acid racemization (AAR) geochronology (for info on how this works see PRI’s project page).  The dating of biominerals and seashells has many applications in research. Fields such as paleontology, tectonics and marine conservation all benefit from accurate dating methods that can help scientists put their samples in temporal context and form a clearer understanding of what has been going on over a period of time.

We spoke with Dr. Kelsey Feser, a paleontologist from Cornell College in Iowa, USA, who is visiting PRI’s AAR lab to date seashells from St Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Dr. Feser collected the shells from sediment cores and is using them to investigate the history of seagrass meadows that are threatened by pollution.  During her visit to Ithaca, we took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her research and why AAR dating is an important tool for her project…

How did you collect the seashell samples and what can they tell us about human impacts on the spectacular marine environments of St. Croix?

I collected the seashells by digging sediment cores while SCUBA diving in shallow seagrass meadows just off the coast.  The cores were 40cm deep, and contained all of the sand and seashells that have accumulated on the seafloor for hundreds, or even thousands of years.  By picking out the shells of thousands of clams and snails from several depths in the cores we were able to construct a record of how the abundances of these animals have changed over time. 

Dr. Feser coring a seagrass bed in St. Croix

Dr. Feser coring a seagrass bed in St. Croix

Clams and snails are very sensitive to environmental changes, particularly those imparted by human activity, so through this research we hope to determine whether the population changes we found were  caused by nearby sources of pollution.

The sorts of pollution sources that we think could be impacting marine clams and snails in St. Croix include runoff during heavy rains and contamination from a power plant and a large, unregulated dump.

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Human impacts on the coast of St. Croix are not hard to find—Dr. Feser photographed this decaying barge not far from the island’s main power plant.

Why is AAR dating important for your research on St. Croix? What do you hope to learn from the data you are collecting at PRI?

I’ve been working in St. Croix for six years, and the question that keeps popping up is “how old are these shells?”  And it’s not a trivial question.  I am interested in the effects of human impacts on populations of marine clams and snails through time, so it is incredibly important to know how recently these population changes took place.  If they happened 5,000 years ago, humans were likely not the cause!  By sampling in seagrass beds, where a thick root mat anchors the sand and prevents it from getting mixed up by waves, we are hoping to find that the deeper the shells are buried, the older they are. 

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The clam shells being dated are tiny—smaller than a fingernail!

This would help us better interpret the changes we see in clam and snail populations through our cores.  By collecting lots of shell ages throughout a given core, we can answer this question. 

Finally, we want to know how long-lived seagrass beds are through time; this is especially pressing given the alarming declines in seagrass meadows around the world. 

By combining our knowledge of change in seagrass-indicating mollusks, and the ages represented through the core, we can determine over what timescales seagrass beds have remained stable around St. Croix and hopefully improve our understanding of what the human impacts on these ecosystems have been over time. The results of this research could have important implications for the conservation of other types of marine life that rely on seagrass, such as sea turtles. 

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A sea turtle foraging in seagrass, a habitat which, sadly, is in decline worldwide

 AAR is the best option for me because I can date far more shells than I could using a more expensive technique like radiocarbon dating, and quantity is crucial for answering these questions

What have been the benefits of running your samples at PRI?

I was thrilled when I found out PRI was getting an AAR lab! By visiting the PRI lab, I have learned the AAR process first-hand and am processing my own samples. This has provided me with invaluable insight into the steps required to date a shell and has also brought down the cost of sample processing considerably. I also was able to bring along one of my undergraduate students, John Lewis, who is participating in a faculty-student summer research program with me. Neither of us could have gained this “insider’s insight” had we elected to mail our samples to a lab to have them run for us. Additionally, working with PRI researchers like Greg Dietl and Steve Durham has been valuable and hopefully will lead to new collaborations beyond my short stay here in Ithaca.

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Dr. Feser and her undergraduate student, John Lewis, at work in the AAR lab last week

A big thanks to Kelsey for answering our questions. You can learn more about her research on St. Croix in the video below.

Please support our campaign to fund the AAR lab at PRI so that we can continue contributing to important projects by researchers like Dr. Feser!

You can also help us by spread the word about the project! Share on Facebook or tweet about it! 

 

My science crowdfunding experience – by Eloise Mikkonen

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So, I’ve finished my crowdfunding campaign, raised enough money to survive for roughly 1-2 months, and had a whirlwind of an adventure with the press and interviews and competitions! So what’s next?

First of all, let me recap. I had 66 backers, providing me with £3398. Wow. That’s amazing and totally unexpected. But it was a lot of work. I found myself on Facebook and Twitter every day trying to plug something about my campaign. It got very tiring in the end, trying to come up with new ways of saying the same thing…and I’m a native English speaker! But it did pay off in the end, and it’s given me a lot of insight into how science should be presented to the public. I’ll touch on that a bit later in more detail, but suffice to say it has led to this blog!

I also became a sort of local celebrity by appearing on the local tv news. I’ve had parents, teachers, and the manager at my boys’ kindergarten point out they saw me on tv! I’ve also been amazed by the reach of my campaign. There were roughly 25 backers that I did not know – and some of them very generous – from all across the world! I was even approached for an interview by a journalism and science student from the University of Queensland! My friend nominated me, leading to me being selected as a finalist in a National (Finnish) Innovation in Research Communication competition, where I will present my crowdfunding campaign on Friday 3rd June in 6 minutes and be in the running to win €3000 (another month’s funding!!!)! So it has all been very exciting and fun!

To find out people are interested in what I actually do, instead of the usual party line of “I’m a biochemist and I study Alzheimer’s disease.” I feel comfortable now going into details, encouraged by the enthusiasm and questions from people without a science background (and to be fair, also those WITH a science background, but that’s not new to me).

Whilst all this was going on, I’ve managed to get a manuscript published (hear more about that in another blog as it hasn’t officially been published yet), and submit another. I feel like I actually have a career! My boss has also secured some funding, so he can fund me a few months after the summer, which has really made me feel like my research is worth doing – on a broader scale than just me thinking it’s important.

So to summarise, I’ve had to put a lot of hard work into marketing my research. It was difficult, and I had to change my mindset and think of what the general public would be interested in hearing about (as opposed to the grant funding agencies), as well as spam the hell out of all my friends/colleagues and family (sorry everyone!!!) and use a lot of time on social media. But, it was worth it. I had a blast, and it has encouraged me to take my research to the public on a more regular occurrence. I’ve started this blog, and if things look a bit dire in the future, perhaps I’d even approach a crowdfunding campaign again. Who knows? At least one thing I’ve learned…it’s not a bad thing for a scientist to engage the public!

Thank you and until next time!

You can view Eloise’s crowdfunding campaign page here.

Project Update: Can The “Spirit Molecule” DMT Help Protect Brain Cells?

nick chapman/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

nick chapman/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

What do you associate with elves? Christmas? The Lord Of The Rings? DMT? For the vast majority of people, the latter is doubtful, and you’re probably left a little confused right now. But for those who have experienced the psychedelic effects of the hallucinogenic chemical DMT, the mention of elves may well have just flooded your mind with memories of that drug trip.

DMT, or N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, is a powerfully psychoactive compound that can induce profound experiences, such as the feeling of transcendence and intense visuals. These hallucinations commonly feature humanoid beings or entities sometimes described as elves.

But there’s much more to DMT than otherworldly creatures; some scientists believe it may have a place in modern medicine, and the brains behind a successful crowdfunding campaign launched on Walacea last year has made it his mission to explore this idea further. Six months on from the campaign’s closure, we caught up with this quirky scientist for an exciting update on how the project has progressed so far, and plans for the future.

Those who generously backed the project may be familiar with the science, but we’ll start off with a bit of background for those who aren’t. DMT is produced by many different plant species, some of which are used to make the hallucinogenic drink ayahuasca, used for centuries by Amazonian tribes in shamanic ceremonies. It’s also found naturally in very tiny amounts in humans, known as “endogenous DMT,” and fairly recently it was discovered that the human brain has multiple active transport mechanisms that allow it to cross our protective blood-brain barrier and cellular membranes. Together, these suggest that DMT likely has some role or purpose in the body, other than being a hallucinogen.

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Interestingly, DMT also acts on a cell receptor called sigma-1 which studies have indicated has a protective and restorative function in neurodegenerative diseases and brain ischemia, or the restriction of blood flow to the brain, suggesting it could also play a role in stroke. This, combined with the fact that near-death experiences have been likened to DMT trips, forms the foundations of Dr Ede Frecska and colleague Attila Szabó’s research, who believes that DMT could help protect brain cells from damage caused by a lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, such as during a heart attack, coma, or clinical death.

After successfully smashing his crowdfunding goal of £2,000 last November, raising almost £3,600, Ede Frecska and Attila Szabó have now completed the first phase of their studies, and the results were very promising.

“The experiments went much better than expected,” said Frecska, Chairman of Psychiatry at the University of Debrecen in Hungary. “We’ve done the in vivo experiments, using brain cells in a Petri dish, which is the stage before animals. We stressed these cells with low oxygen concentrations, and found that more survived when exposed to DMT.”

More specifically, Frecska explained that his team exposed human stem cells that had been coaxed into becoming neurons to low levels of oxygen and added varying concentrations of DMT to different dishes. As expected, being starved of oxygen caused the cells to become stressed and die, and adding very low concentrations of DMT didn’t seem to mitigate this. However, higher concentrations of DMT caused three times as many neurons to survive. They also repeated this procedure with a different type of brain cell, called glia, and found similar results.

“The next step is to start using animals,” said Frecska, “so I wish to publish this second DMT paper soon. We have already published work showing that DMT has an anti-inflammatory effect.” That’s also a potentially important find, since chronic inflammation has been linked to a myriad of diseases of civilisation, from Alzheimer’s to heart disease.

If results in such animal models are similarly encouraging, indicating some neuroprotective role of DMT during hypoxia, then Frecska hopes to pursue human trials, possibly investigating its use in individuals whose brains have sustained injury or a lack of blood, and thus oxygen flow. But to progress his work, Frecska needs further funding, which is hard to come by for most scientists, let alone those working on Schedule 1 drugs like DMT.

“Psychedelics are stigmatised,” said Frecska. “You don’t have an endogenous opioid system just so you can have a nice time in an opium cave! And we don’t have endogenous hallucinogens just to make us go crazy.

“But the opioid system has been studied for decades [for its role in pain, stress and immune regulation, etc.]; this didn’t happen after endogenous hallucinogens were discovered. People assume they just have a psychedelic effect. I’m trying to show scientists that this is a new chapter of research, that endogenous hallucinogens have a physiological role in the body.”

Psychedelics are proving themselves not only as promising therapeutics, particularly with regards to mental health, but also as a potential window for investigating fascinating subjects like consciousness – check out the groundbreaking LSD research we also helped crowdfund. It’s time to end the stigma so that more studies like these can be conducted, and so research isn’t hindered by outdated ideas that are rooted in fear rather than science. Thank you for helping towards that goal, and for bringing this study to life!

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Evolutionary education: An approach set in stone?

Museum Front

  • Earth Science teachers need help in finding digital resources for palaeontology lessons
  • As a solution, a new educational website will bring together the digital research catalogues of museums worldwide
  • The innovative project will create a virtual museum to display digital fossils
  • This online museum will appear and function like a computer game

In a bid to help teach pupils about the evolution of life on Earth, a pioneering new project is collating digital versions of fossils from all around the world, displaying them in an interactive and informative online “computer game museum.”

The Virtual Natural History Museum, a project which is being led by a team of palaeontology experts at the University of Bristol, will provide a unique resource to teachers – offering digital access to specimens rarely seen outside of academia.

Its creation follows a request from the UK’s Earth Sciences Teachers’ Association, which asked professional palaeontologists for help in collecting multimedia resources to help illustrate their lessons.

The request was picked up by Palaeocast, a palaeontology podcast operating out of the University of Bristol. They’ve attracted funding from The Palaeontological Association and the Geologists’ Association and are crowdfunding to cover the remaining costs.

PhD student and show founder Dave Marshall said: “We deal with palaeontological multimedia, so when we first saw the letter from the teachers, we knew there was something Palaeocast could do to help. We conceived a website that collates the fossil multimedia already available online and presents it under relevant points of the national curriculum.”

This website will primarily rely on the online research catalogues that museums produce for academics, bringing them together in an easily-accessible way.

Dave explained: “Many museums have digitised large parts of their collections and made them available to the scientific community. Unfortunately, they don’t publicise these catalogues to the public, nor are they presented with any sort of engaging interface; they’re just a gallery of specimen numbers and pictures.

“We wanted our website to be more than points from the national curriculum with pictures underneath, so we asked ourselves, what’s the best way to display fossils? The answer is of course a museum. We’re therefore building a digital museum for these digital fossils, putting the world’s fossil collections into the hands of teachers, students and anyone with access to a computer.”

The user-interface of this virtual museum is set to appear and function exactly like a computer game; allowing users to explore the collections using an avatar, just as you would do in real life.

While produced for a specific educational purpose, the Virtual Natural History Museum will allow for whole collections to be publically displayed for the first time.

The fossil collections of the National Geological Repository are the second-largest in the UK, but they have no public exhibition. Even large museums, such as the Natural History Museum in London, only display a fraction of their specimens.

The Virtual Natural History Museum will be able to provide a public front for those museums without displays and offers the option to exhibit fragile specimens without them needing to leave the collection stores.

The project has already been supported by numerous museums as well as educational and academic associations, including the Earth Science Teachers’ Association and the National Geological Repository.

Please support generously on the Walacea crowdfunding page.

The much anticipated results of the LSD Brain Imaging Study

LSD brain images

This is a staggering image illustrating how LSD affects brain activity. The brain on the left is placebo and on the right under the influence of LSD.

When Albert Hofmann first created LSD on his lab bench back in 1938, little did he know that he had one of the most powerful psychoactive substances known to man in his hands, one that continues to intrigue and beguile us almost 80 years on. While its profound psychedelic effects are no secret, the underlying mechanisms of action on the brain and consciousness have eluded scientists. Now, thanks to new research partly funded through Walacea, we are finally beginning to unravel these mysteries.

Published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the investigation was actually the world’s first study to look at the human brain on LSD. While the drug may have been around for a long time, unfortunately its unscientific and unjustified classification as a Schedule 1 drug has greatly hindered research with LSD for half a century.

In 2010, a prominent paper published in the Lancet ranked LSD as the third least harmful of the 20 investigated, with alcohol sitting comfortably at the other end of the spectrum. Not only that, but early clinical studies suggested its ability to increase openness could have therapeutic uses in many mental health conditions, such as depression and addiction. Yet its label as a Schedule 1 drug has meant that research on LSD has been near impossible to gain approval for, or funding.

With crowdfunding increasingly recognised as a way for scientists to be able to carry out the research that they, and the public, are passionate about, the team behind the study joined up with Walacea to reach out to the masses and secure the money they needed to make this study happen. And it’s been a huge success.

After launching at the beginning of March last year, in just over a month the project received more than twice its £25,000 goal, raising a staggering £53,390. In addition, the coverage in the media was overwhelming, reaching audiences all across the globe. Although pledgers received some enticing perks, such as tickets to science seminars or invitations to dinner with the researchers, now it’s time for the real return we have all been waiting for: the results.

“This is a very proud day for us, it’s taken 10 years to achieve this and it’s a very special day,” said Robin Carhartt-Harris at the beginning of his presentation about the findings of the study. When describing the study, Prof Nutt said: “This is the most significant research I have ever done.” Both emphasised how they hope that this research will open up the floodgates for future research into psychedelics and potential medical interventions.

Headed by Imperial College London’s Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, in collaboration with the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme, co-directed by Amanda Feilding and Prof David Nutt, the study involved 20 participants who were either given a placebo injection of salt water or a moderate dose of LSD on two separate days. Volunteers then had their brains scanned using three imaging techniques, which all showed and measured something different: blood flow, connections within and between networks, and brain wave patterns.

Alongside inducing visual hallucinations and profound alterations in consciousness in all participants, LSD was found to exert some fascinating effects on the brain. Certain brain networks that are normally well-connected became destabilized, resulting in a loss of integrity within these networks. In particular, decreased stability within a network called the Default Mode Network, which is active when we’re resting, was strongly linked with self-reported ego dissolution, or the loss of self-identity, and a more fluid state of consciousness.

“Somehow, I was able to comprehend what oneness is,” said one participant. “I had a sense of being inside myself and outside of myself at the same time. I definitely felt removed in some way from what I would usually describe as ‘my self,’” another described.

Alongside these pronounced effects within brain networks, the researchers found that LSD also caused an increase in global integration, with heightened connectivity between distinct brain networks becoming strikingly apparent. In other words, the brain seemed to be functioning in a much freer, more unified manner, something that also correlated with ego-dissolution.

“You could never have predicted the results that we found,” said Prof Nutt at a seminar on the results. “But they make sense.”

Last, but certainly not least, the team gained a fascinating insight into how the drug produces visual hallucinations. Normally, the brain’s primary visual cortex, the region that receives information from our eyes, only “talks” to other areas associated with vision, but upon taking LSD this area “exploded” and began communicating with many other distinct regions. This expansion of visual processing was linked with the degree of complex imagery seen, meaning images other than geometric shapes and flashes, like people and intricate scenes. On top of that, blood flow was boosted to regions involved in vision, despite the fact that their eyes were closed the entire time.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” said Dr Carhart-Harris. “We’re only beginning to understand the effects of psychedelics and their value. Now, we need to fine tune our questions. What is the ego? Can psychedelics produce insight? How? Is the psychedelic state like the dream state?”

Clearly there is much work to be done, but hopefully this work has opened the floodgates for research on psychedelics, and we’re excited to see how the scientific journey unfolds.

Thank you for your support in helping make this amazing research come to life. Be sure to keep up with the Walacea page to find out what other exciting science projects you can back and become a part of! Remember science will happen faster if you support it!

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