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Inside Oxford Science: podcast wrap-up

Science | Health | Podcast

Pete Wilton & Jonathan Wood | 03 Mar 09

Inside Oxford Science #1

As reported on our news pages the first in our regular series of science podcasts, Inside Oxford Science, launches today.

The idea is to get together Oxford University scientists and get them talking about the latest scientific discoveries and the most interesting scientific issues.

In this edition presenter Marcus du Sautoy asks Irene Tracey about synaesthesia and Chris Lintott about citizen science, with additional input from Pedro Ferreira.

After every podcast OxSciBlog will be delivering extra information and links for more on the subjects covered [you can listen here].

Genetic links make for colourful reading
The way we experience the world is guided by our senses: the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feel of everything around us. It’s how we build up a picture of our surroundings and determines how we interact with it.

But, as Irene Tracey explains in the podcast, for a small number of people, the way they perceive the world isn’t confined to these separate sensory channels. Particular senses can overlap, in a kind of blending or mash-up where stimulating one sense can set off another as well.

These people have synaesthesia  – the name given to this neurological condition that involves a ‘blending of the senses’.

Synaesthesia can take a number of forms. Some may ‘see’ sounds, in that hearing sounds triggers them to see colours at the same time, while others might experience colours while reading simple black text. It affects less than 1% of the population and is known to run in families. Interestingly, the extra colours, sounds, or tastes that are triggered are always very precise and always the same every time. It is a form of perfect recall like perfect pitch.

‘When I hear a violin, I see something like a rich red wine,’ Dr Julian Asher told New Scientist, when explaining his own synaesthesia. ‘A cello is more like honey.’ The condition can have implications for education: the crossover in the way the brain sorts and processes information from the senses can affect reading speeds, how much information people can take in, and concentration levels. ‘Maths in particular can pose difficulties for synaesthetic children as synaesthetic meaning obscures numerical meaning (‘blue’ four + ‘yellow’ five = ‘green’ six),’ says Dr Asher.

In extreme cases, people can end up avoiding noisy, colourful, busy places such as nightclubs and even supermarkets.

Dr Asher, while in Tony Monaco’s group at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, University of Oxford, carried out a screen of the human genome to look for genes linked to the neurological condition.

The researchers found four genetic regions linked with susceptibility to synaesthesia. The region with the strongest connection has also been previously linked to autism. The findings were reported in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

The possible genetic connection to autism is of particular interest. ‘Sensory and perceptual abnormalities are common in autism spectrum conditions and synaesthesia is sometimes reported as a symptom,’ says Dr Asher, now at Imperial College London.

For example, the extreme memory and recall capabilities of at least one numerical savant appear to be driven by his synaesthesia. The other regions identified in the genome scan include genes associated with memory and learning, dyslexia and epilepsy.

The study sheds light on the genetic basis of synaesthesia, and could perhaps help the future diagnosis of the condition in kids that seem to be struggling at school. But also, it may give insight into the way the brain processes sensory information and how that contributes to the way we perceive, experience, and think about the world.

Citizen science & Galaxy Zoo
17 February saw the launch of Galaxy Zoo 2, a project that harnesses the brain power of web users around the world to do astronomy research on an unprecedented scale.

Astronomers came up with the idea of getting online volunteers involved because the human brain is still better at doing pattern recognition tasks than a computer.

After the success of the original Galaxy Zoo the team, led by Oxford University scientists, is asking volunteers to delve into 250,000 of the brightest and best galaxies in search of the strange and unusual. The new site has already been a big success with 2 million questions answered about galaxies in the first 48 hours it went live and the number of people contributing to GZ2 already larger than the population of Sunderland or, if you prefer, the Italian army.

In the podcast GZ founder Chris Lintott explains how the ‘citizen science’ approach has helped the team engage with people in a very unusual way – as armchair astronomers start to learn how the scientific process works and begin to pursue their own research aims.

This, in turn, is prompting astronomers to take a fresh look at cosmic phenomena which they would otherwise ignore: such as irregular galaxies – which make up the ’fuzz’ of the Universe – and small galactic objects – such as the green blobs which Zooites have nicknamed the ‘Galaxy Zoo peas.’

Chris also tells us how the citizen science approach used by Galaxy Zoo could be applied to other problems where scientists are faced with enormous datasets which contain lots of information that cannot be analysed by computers.

In the news: Science Festival
The new Oxfordshire Science Festival launched on 28 February: Marcus and Chris discuss their involvement in this year’s Oxford University Science Roadshow, which sees Marcus returning to his old school (where he learnt his love of maths) and Chris getting pupils to calculate the age of the Universe.

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