July 30, 2019, by Dr. Meghan Gray

Quantum Sensing the brains of Cheltenham Science Festival

Guest post by Natalie Rhodes (3rd year MSci undergraduate)

I was absolutely delighted to be invited to join a group of PhD students, Post Docs, and undergraduates to present to the public “Quantum Sensing the Brain” at the start of June. I had just finished my third year exams (the day before we went!) and I’m hoping to go on to be a medical physicist, so I naturally jumped at the opportunity.

Cheltenham Science festival is a 6 day exhibition open to the public and schools. Stands were focussed on a wide range of topics; from Chemistry demonstrations to cyber security hacking games. Talks were held throughout the day on many relevant scientific topics by some big names in science!

What were we doing?

Following on from the success of the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition (which many of the group had been involved in last year), we continued our mission of educating the public on medical physics, focussing on magnetoencephelography (MEG) and electroencephalography (EEG). The exhibition focussed on how researchers at Nottingham have been able to use quantum physics to measure the magnetic fields generated by the brain using OPM-MEG. This new technique will hopefully provide further understanding of the inner workings of our brains. One fascinating field this could be applied in is the study of mental health issues, such as schizophrenia or depression.

The set up

The main (and most eye catching) aspect of the stand was the (HUGE) model LED brain which was hung up within a big metal frame. On the first morning the whole team were down for breakfast by 6.30am so we could get to the tent with enough time to set up. The set up required fitting the frame pieces together and then hanging the brain by matching number tags with thin wires and hooks- something which requires a lot of concentration for so early in the morning! There were a few moments where halfway into hanging up part of the brain we realised it was either the wrong way around or on the wrong side of the head… oops! We managed to get it all up just in time before all the school children came piling into the tent to look around.

During the festival

During our shifts on the stand we spent a lot of time playing with EEG ‘mind control’ games with the school children, which amazed a lot of them (“It’s like magic!”), as well as using the LED brain to demonstrate alpha oscillations (most prevalent when eyes are shut- hence the dramatic picture above).

Demonstrating the EEG ‘mind games’

In our free time we could attend the talks. I attended “A Very Short Introduction to… Infinity” by Ian Stewart, a mathematician from the University of Warwick, who explained the importance of the concept of infinity and gave some mind-boggling mathematical problems associated with it!

Packing up

The packing up was luckily much easier than the set up so after the two wonderful days of presenting we had to load up the van with all the brain model and all the equipment before returning to Nottingham. Whilst we were finishing putting boxes in the van, we casually bumped into DIY SOS’s Nick Knowles whilst he was getting into his car parked right next to us! I proceeded to turn bright red and giggled like a fangirl to everyone else’s amusement!

I’m very grateful to have been invited along to this event and enjoyed it thoroughly. The team were so welcoming, and I am fortunate enough to be doing research at the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre (SPMIC) with some of them this summer- so it was a great way to get the ball rolling! The exhibition was very popular, having a wide range of people asking interesting (and sometimes almost beyond my understanding!) questions and showing such curiosity about the future of the technology. The future of MEG and ‘Quantum Sensing the Brain’ is so exciting, I can’t wait to see what will happen next!


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