Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease

Dr. Cheryl Hawkes

Dr. Cheryl Hawkes


November’s Café Scientifique on the diagnosis, treatment and research into Alzheimer’s disease was given by Dr Cheryl Hawkes from the Department of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences at the Open University.


Cheryl started by explaining that 35.5 million people in the world and 850,000 people in the UK have dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form. Several people in the audience indicated that somebody they knew was suffering from dementia.


The disease is diagnosed by identifying its symptoms which include a loss of memory, mood swings and problems with communication and reasoning. These are assessed using standardised memory tests.


Dr. Cheryl Hawkes at Smokin' Billy's giving her Cafe Scientifique talk

Dr. Cheryl Hawkes at Smokin’ Billy’s giving her Cafe Scientifique talk

Alzheimer’s disease is caused when Tau proteins, which strengthen microtubules in our central nervous system, start to change and form tangled clumps inside nerve cell bodies, causing the microtubules to fall apart. The formation and build-up of extracellular Amyloid beta plaque has been implicated as the underlying cause and its removal has been the subject of several clinical trials.


Cheryl ended by giving us some useful advice on how to lower our risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease which included both physical and mental exercise and a healthy diet. She advised that although alcohol was not recommended, if one ‘must’ indulge, red wine may reduce our risks.


Inside Ebola

“I’m here because I love viruses”

Dr Ben Neuman introduces us to viruses at Cafe Scientifique

Dr Ben Neuman introduces us to viruses at Cafe Scientifique

The May Cafe Scientifique saw Dr Ben Neuman from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading introduce us to the wonderful world of viruses.

Ben started by giving us an update on the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa and explained how Ebola is partitioned in tissues and transferred from person to person. He also provided a background to how it became prevalent in humans (apparently through eating uncooked bats! – Ozzy Osbourne beware)

Ben then answered questions from the audience both on Ebola and on viruses in general, explaining that they have been around much longer than us and that they are at the pinnacle of evolution (much more evolved than us).

He finished by offering a solution on how we could eradicate all viral diseases: We just each have to spend a year alone in a phone box in space without contact with each other and everybody on earth needs to do this otherwise it wont work.

You can read more about Dr Neuman’s research here

British Science Week 2015

It’s been nearly two months since Reading Science Week – part of British Science Week – and the branch has recouped from what was a very busy, fun and successful week.

We kicked off Reading Science Week this year with science busking on Broad St. in Reading centre. Despite the chilly weather, we entertained kids, adults, and even ourselves with live science demonstrations: we extracted DNA from strawberries, investigated strange solids with non-newtonian fluids, and got a few lessons on light and laser science.

science week 1

Our enthusiastic volunteers engaged the crowd and handed out flyers inviting people to the week’s events. These events included Stargazing where families enjoyed talks by scientists and had the chance to observe Jupiter in our night’s sky, SciScreen’s (two!), public lectures at the University of Reading, Science Slam and more.

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Cafe Scientifique, our regular science event, saw not one, but five scientists give a talk on genetic engineering. The young scientists were last year’s University of Reading’s iGEM team and gave a talk on their project involving genetically modifying bacteria to produce energy. The students each discussed the benefits of genetic modification in solving problems such as biofuel shortage, which stimulated a fantastic debate on this controversial subject!


All in all, this year’s Reading Science Week was a great success, and without our enthusiastic and hard-working volunteers it wouldn’t have been made possible, so a huge thanks to everyone who was involved!

We eat, sleep and breathe plants, so why are we so blind to them?

Dr Jonathan Mitchley's online alter ego - Dr M

Dr Jonathan Mitchley’s online alter ego – Dr M

There’s none so blind as those who will not see, and plants suffer much more than their fair share from this blindness!

The April 2015 Cafe Scientifique saw Dr Jonathan Mitchley, Professor of Field Botany from The University of Reading (better known as Dr M, his online cartoon alter ego that likes to refer to himself in the third person) tackle the issue of “plant blindness” amongst the human species, that is the tendency for people to see ‘nothing’ when they look at plants.

In the western world, if we notice plants at all, it is to emphasise the negatives, the pernicious weeds, the alien invasives and the poisonous plants, in fact these days we hardly dare let our children out of the house for fear they will be overwhelmed by triffids or poisoned to death by evil-looking plant monsters!

But plants are the basis of all life on earth and we ignore them at our peril. And, as Dr M emphasised, plants are intrinsically beautiful and fascinating in their own right and what we need to do is relearn the ancient art of looking and seeing!

Dr M’s session introduced the concept of plant blindness and illustrated the importance, value and beauty of plants through twelve themes depicted in this collage.

Image credit: John Innes Centre: Plants and Us

Image credit: John Innes Centre: Plants and Us

He concluded with some words on how each of us can contribute to the curing of global plant blindness and took questions and comments from the floor and plant-based beverages from the bar!

You can check out his website (modestly described as ‘the best in the world’) here


Cafe Sci – Friends in Low Places…..Our Gut Microbes

We all harbour 100 trillion microbes in our gut, and we’re in fact more microbial than we are human. Since Metchnikoff published his theory that our gut microbes prolong life in 1907, it took a while for the area of gut microbiology to kick off. The first ‘probiotic’ was developed in the 1930s by Minoru Shirota, who isolated his own lactic acid bacteria (now ‘Yakult’), but it wasn’t until the 1970-80s that research into validating the health claims of probiotics gained visibility.IMG_6712

Now, probiotic research is now an ever increasing area of microbiology with over 15,000 papers published. On Monday evening, the man who has spent most of his career in gut microbiology research since its early days – Professor Glenn Gibson, University of Reading – gave a very entertaining talk at Reading’s Café Scientifique on Monday; the man certainly knows how to make faeces and flatulence an interesting subject matter! He discussed the wealth of benefits that prebiotics and probiotics have on our health, from bowel disease to autism. Prebiotics are non-digestible dietary ingredients that stimulate the growth of our ‘good’ lactic acid bacteria, and where a lot of Glenn’s research lies (he co-coined the term in 1997). Prebiotics include fructooligosaccharides and galactooligosaccharides and are found in foods such as bananas, garlic and asparagus and have been found to boost our beneficial microbes, which in turn have been shown to have beneficial effects on our health.

Despite the wealth of research on promising health effects exerted by pre and probiotics, such claims are not permitted to be advertised on products in Europe, which Glenn stated has held us back compared to other countries that even prescribe probiotic supplements with antibiotics, to counteract the depletory effect antibiotics have on our gut flora.

Glenn advocated the use of pro and prebiotics, saying “you will feel the same, or better”. Our helpful gut microbes are crucial for our health; they prevent the colonisation of pathogenic organisms through competitive binding and anti-microbial compound secretion, improve gut barrier function, and prime our immune system. For those with underlying illnesses, taking therapeutics that destroy gut microbes, or with known colonisation of pathogenic organisms (such as H. pylori), taking probiotics is certainly warranted.

Our gut microbes are as unique as our fingerprints, and we’re only just beginning to understand the complexity of the microbiome, making this area of research incredibly exciting. Glenn’s now looking at the effects of pre and probiotics in chemotherapy patients and looking at the link between gut flora composition and autism. Watch this space!

Cafe Sci – Exploring the Invisible

At last night’s Reading Cafe Sci, Dr. Simon Park, Senior lecturer in Microbial Sciences at the University of Surrey, enlightened us on the use of microbes in art.

Simon’s talk began with an introduction to how diverse and ubiquitous microbes are; because they’re minuscule, microbes are often overlooked, but their visible presence in our environment can be seen every day. Examples of microbial growth and inhibition on roofs and pavements were shown, and parallels were drawn to microbial cultures in the laboratory.

The remainder of the talk focussed on the use of naturally pigmented and bioluminescent bacteria in artwork, from a replica of Sir John Everett Mallais’ Ophelia to watercolour paintings. Simon has even produced a watercolour self-portrait using his own microbial flora!

Bacteria communicate to regulate gene expression and increase fitness – called Quorum sensing – and it’s through communication that some bacteria produce bioluminescence. Simon’s work with these bacteria have included Bioluminescent cities using moulded agar and he even brought some microbial baubles to the venue! Also shown was the use of soil bacteria to produce fluorescence by breaking down enzyme substrates, demonstrated by placing lumps of soil quite simply on agar containing the substrate.

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Due to the media, the perception of microbes are too often associated with “superbugs” and organisms that cause disease. This talk showed microbes to be important symbionts that have the ability to make decisions, produce colourful and fluorescent pigments and display behaviour that can be used to produce some wonderful art.

A big thanks to Simon for ending a great 2014 for Cafe Sci!

If you’d like to explore the invisible some more, check out Simon’s blog.

Remembrance Cafe Sci – Weatherman at War

This week at Café Sci, Professor Andrew Charlton-Perez gave a talk on weather forecasting during WW2, ahead of Armistice photoDay. Andrew took us back to 1944, when James Stagg– chief meteorologist at the Met Office – had to forecast the changeable weather conditions for the D-Day landings, probably the most important weather prediction of all time, and one that undoubtedly determined allied victory.

D-Day landings were scheduled to take place on the 5th June, 1944. However, using air reconnaissance, ship observations and UK observations sites, Stagg and his co-workers predicted unfavourable weather conditions, unlike the American team (Irving Crick) who had a more positive outlook. Luckily, Eisenhower took the advice of Stagg and D-Day was postponed until the next day. Conditions were still not ideal, but had the invasion been postponed to the next available date when the moon and tides were right, a storm that occurred would have most likely caused the invasion to fail. Although conditions were not perfect on the 6th June, the Germans had not expected invasion because of this and were taken off guard as a result.

Andrew discussed the way in which weather is now predicted and how computers now help with generating data compared to the manual methods used in the 1940s. Recently, Adrian Simmons used modern numerical weather forecasting to compare how methods used now would have predicted the weather on June 5th, 1944. For the results, you can listen to this audio recording of the results.

Dr. Jason Lim talks about tracking insects with radar

Last night Dr. Jason Lim from Rothamsted Research give a fantastic talk with some wonderful demonstrations about his research on the use of radarIMG_0079 technology to track high flying insects and bees. Jason is the Chair of the Radar Entomology Unit at Rothamsted Research which is currently seen as one of the world leading units in the use of remote sensing technology for studying insect movement around the globe.

In his talk Jason introduced the two types of radar his group operates: Vertical-Looking Radar for tracking high flying insects during their annual migrations and Harmonic Radar for tracking bees and other low flying insects over a distance of approximately 1 km. He went on to explain how radar worked using a torch, some paper moths on a stick, and some coloured tubes. In this photo he is projecting a paper moth onto the ceiling to demonstrate how Vertical-Looking Radar works.

Jason described how research using Vertical-Looking Radar has revealed the 9000 mile migration route of the painted lady butterfly. His recent research showed for the first time that bumble bees are able to optimise their foraging routes to ensure that they travel the shortest possible distance between sources of nectar in their territory.


Dr. Tim Salomons gives a great talk at Cafe Sci

timLast night, Cafe Sci was back after a summer break, with a great turnout of over 60 people. Dr. Tim Salomons gave a fantastic talk on ‘Training the brain to beat the pain’, discussing how our thoughts affect our sensitivity to pain and how it can be a target for reducing pain sensation using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Tim discussed not only the physiological causes of pain, but also the psychological causes which can largely affect our perception of pain.

His research has shown that positive thinking through CBT can reduce pain sensitisation, which works in some people, but not all. Finding out who is amenable to CBT, and why, are Tim’s next steps. Pain is also a crucial sensory mechanism, protecting us from danger and those born with congenital analgesia, suffer from constant injuries – which can be life-threatening – due to the inability to recognise harmful situations. Tim’s research will also be looking at how psychological therapy could be used to help those with this condition feel pain sensations.

You can find out more about Tim’s research here - http://www.eveningtelegraph.co.uk/life/weird-life/positive-thinking-helps-manage-pain-1.479633