Sussex Neuroscience


This part of the Sussex Neuroscience website is a mix of material that will hopefully entertain as well as inform.

Press interest in snail Nature Comms paper

Snails news largeDr Michael Crossley, Prof Kevin Staras and Prof George Kemenes published a paper in Nature Communications that sparked a significant amount of interest in the national press on 03/06/16, including coverage by BBC News, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Mirror, Sky News, ITV News, Reddit, Science Daily... and the Shoreham Herald.

The study examines adaptive goal-directed decision making in the relatively simple nervous system of the pond snail Lymnaea stagnalis, contributing to our understanding of the neurophysiology of this process, and with potential relevance for the development of more efficient robotic systems.

Science paper by Claudio Alonso's group


Dr Claudio AlonsoDr Claudio Alonso

Dr Claudio Alonso, Wellcome Trust Investigator, Reader in Developmental Genetics and member of Sussex Neuroscience, and colleagues have published a study in Science describing a novel link between genetics and movement control. See here for the press release.


Interview with Maxine Sherman: Sussex Neuroscience PhD Prize winner 2015

MaxineMaxine Sherman and Leon Lagnado

Maxine Sherman is this year’s winner of the SN PhD student Prize, for her PhD work on predictive coding supervised by Ryota Kanai and Anil Seth, and her excellent talk at SN Day entitled: “Seeing is believing: The influence of prior expectations on perceptual confidence.”

What does that mean?!
What I’m basically showing in my thesis is: knowing helps you know that you know... At the talk I concentrated on ‘knowing makes you think you know’. I’d like that to be my thesis title but I’m not sure anyone will agree to it!
What do you like best about your research?
I love being part of a community of brilliant people – in the Sackler Centre, Psychology, and the consciousness community overall. In my research the biggest enjoyment is finding questions that nobody has asked before.
Is it a good time to be involved in consciousness research?
Yes – it’s very exciting right now. I see predictive coding as a big paradigm shift; we are finding a whole new perspective on a lot of old ideas.
How do you describe your academic journey so far?
I came to Sussex following a BSc in Mathematics from Bristol University, and I took the Sussex Psychology conversion course before beginning my PhD. During my undergraduate degree I had no idea that maths could be so useful to neuroscience... we did all these lectures in Bayesian stats, Fourier analysis.. I thought it was pretty dry, and I wish I’d known that one day this would be such an advantage when I came to use human brain imaging and recording techniques such as fMRI and EEG. Students from the physical sciences should really be encouraged to move into neuroscience – it is incredibly rewarding to apply these skills to fundamental human questions.
How did you feel about winning the SN Prize?
The whole of SN Day was amazing – I found out so much that I didn’t know about all the neuroscience going on in other Schools. Winning the prize was a really nice surprise – I have also just had my first paper published, so it’s been a good few weeks, and has definitely made me feel better about writing up my thesis, which is a fairly painful process... I spent my prize money buying all the nice liqueurs that I can’t usually afford for my drinks cupboard!

Maxine plans to submit her thesis in September and is hoping to find a postdoctoral position.

Join us in donating equipment to TReND in Africa!

MahmoudMahmoud Bukar Maina

Sussex Neuroscience has recently donated a number of pieces of lab equipment to TReND in Africa (Teaching and Research in Natural Sciences for Development in Africa), through PhD student and volunteer Mahmoud Bukar Maina (Serpell lab). TReND is an NGO that aims to overcome global inequality through education and local empowerment. Their belief is that providing top-level education to local elites, in their own home countries, is key to enabling the development of societies to take their futures into their own hands, with the mission statement: “Sustainable development through higher education and scientific innovation”.

To this end, TReND runs an increasing range of educational activities, including the provision of Trend-groupNeuroscience and Bioinformatics workshops, leveraging free and open-source software and hardware, and supporting the establishment of top-level scientific facilities by assisting in the set up of large-scale, low-cost approaches to innovation and research. These help to overcome one of the main challenges for developing nations: the need and costs of importing their solutions, innovations and patents from abroad. One recent effort is the soon-to-be released (December 2014) crowding-funding campaign with Walacea to establish a 3D-printing facility at the University of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania.

Scientific education and innovation is pivotal to the ability of societies to move forward and integrate with the global scientific community. With that in mind, the objectives of TReND projects are three fold:Trend-bench

Improve facilities and self-sufficiency - The education and support of scientists in home universities will support research and advancement in those institutions for years to come, ultimately reducing the loss of Africa’s most capable minds to Western universities. In addition to the acquisition of financial donations, TReND contributes to the improvement of university infrastructure through the collection and delivery of equipment donations to institutes across the continent. The most recent equipment donation from Sussex Neuroscience was an Axiovert inverted fluorescence microscope from Prof Leon Lagnado, which was delivered to a newly established lab at the University of Maiduguri, Nigeria. Investment in university education and infrastructure are key foundations towards a sustainable program in which future primary and secondary teachers are educated locally to the highest standards, which will help further the growth of science education and research.

Encourage inter-university collaboration - One aspect of the provision of donated equipment and development of new facilities is the impetus to share these resources with other researchers and institutes, thereby fostering increased collaboration between universities, and further spreading the benefits.

Promote local outreach programmes - Support is given to locally run outreach projects designed to increase science awareness, as well as inspire and motivate young students and their teachers.

TReND in Africa is always thankful for any help and donations – if you are in position to donate any equipment or wish to work with TReND, please contact Mahmoud at

How the fruit fly could help us sniff out drugs and bombs

A fly’s sense of smell could be used in new technology to detect drugs and bombs, new University of Sussex research has found.

Drosophila melanogasterDrosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. Photo courtesy of André Karwath.

Brain scientist Professor Thomas Nowotny was surprised to find that the ‘nose’ of fruit flies can identify odours from illicit drugs and explosive substances almost as accurately as wine odour, which the insects are naturally attracted to because it smells like their favourite food, fermenting fruit.

Published on Wednesday (15 October) in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, the study brings scientists closer to developing electronic noses (e-noses) that closely replicate the sensitive olfactory sense of animals.

The hope is that such e-noses will be much more sensitive and much faster than the currently commercially available e-noses that are typically based on metal-oxide sensors and are very slow, compared to a biological nose.

Professor Nowotny, Professor of Informatics at Sussex, led the study alongside researchers from Monash University and CSIRO in Australia. He said: “Dogs can smell drugs and people have trained bees to detect explosives. Here we are looking more for what it is in the nose - which receptors - that allows animals to do this.

“In looking at fruit flies, we have found that, contrary to our expectation, unfamiliar odours, such as from explosives, were not only recognised but broadly recognised with the same accuracy as odours more relevant to a fly’s behaviour.”

Professor Nowotny and his collaborators recorded how 20 different receptor neurons in fruit flies responded to an ecologically relevant set of 36 chemicals related to wine (the ‘wine set’) and an ecologically irrelevant set of 35 chemicals related to hazardous materials, such as those found in drugs, combustion products and the headspace of explosives (the ‘industrial set’).

By monitoring the ‘firing rate’ of each neuron, they were able to assess which smells elicited the strongest reactions from the flies. They then used a computer program to simulate the part of the fly’s brain used for recognition to show that the receptor responses contained enough information to recognise odours.

Of the wine set, 29 out of the 36 compounds elicited clear excitatory responses in at least one receptor neuron. They were surprised to find, however, that the flies also responded to 21 out of the 35 substances related to drugs and explosives.

Professor Nowotny added: “The long-term goal of this research direction is to ‘recreate’ animals' noses for technical applications.

“As well as the detection of explosives, chemical weapons and drugs, there is a broad array of other possible applications, such as measuring food quality, health (breath analysis), environmental monitoring, and even geological monitoring (volcanoes) and agriculture (detecting pests).

“And, of course, the fly’s success in identifying the ‘wine set’ might prove useful for those in the winemaking industry.

“But it would be quite difficult to recreate the entire nose; even adopting all sensors would be too difficult. One may be able to do five or maybe 10, out of 43 in the fruit fly or hundreds in the dog. So the question is, which 10 should we use and would it work? In this paper we show that it could work with as little as 10 fruit fly receptors and we identify the most likely candidates to use.”

If you wish to know more about Professor Nowotny's work on this, please listen to the podcast he recently recorded for BBC world service:

Thomas podcast - clipped

Interview with Adrian Bell: Sussex Neuroscience PhD Student Prize winner 2014

Leon Lagnado and Adrian Bell"I came to Sussex following BSc and MSc degrees in Biology and Animal Behaviour from Newcastle University. My goal is to understand how individual neurons drive an animal’s actions – a reductionist, “behind the scenes” unravelling of behaviour.

In Jeremy Niven’s lab, we use the relative simplicity of invertebrate nervous systems to examine how and why brains have evolved, employing behavioural, cellular and computational techniques. The presentation I gave at Sussex Neuroscience Day described our discovery that locusts display “handedness”, that is, a preference for using the right or left forelimb to reach across a gap between platforms. This work was published in Current Biology in May: Bell AT & Niven JE, Individual-level, context-dependent handedness in the desert locust. This is the first time that handedness has been described in an insect, and opens avenues to look for evidence of this behavioural strategy in other organisms. Handedness is a good example of how behavioural observations can capture people’s imagination; what I want to do next is to learn some electrophysiology and examine the neurons involved in this behaviour and others.

The thing I enjoy most about my research is the freedom to observe and to develop ideas. Even during times when results aren’t forthcoming and you feel that you’re not getting anywhere, you are always learning what is and isn’t possible. This paper began with a simple observation, which developed into a hunch, and then kicked off a year of intensive research. The writing process was a valuable experience – 15 drafts of the manuscript felt like a lot, but other people tell me that this is actually quite a small number!

Presenting the work at Sussex Neuroscience Day was very rewarding – I enjoyed answering the audience’s questions, and have had many more conversations with faculty and students in the corridors since giving my talk. Winning the PhD Student Prize was great - I have put the money towards the very studious purpose of buying a new laptop."

Adrian Bell is in the second year of his PhD research and works in the Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics (CCNR), supervised by Dr Jeremy Niven (School of Life Sciences) and Dr Andy Philippides (School of Informatics and Engineering).

Being a bee

BeePilot userBeePilot virtual reality set-up

Thanks to the innovative use of modern games technology, hundreds of school children have this summer been experiencing what life would be like as a foraging honeybee looking for flowers.

As part of the University's schools outreach program, members of Sussex Neuroscience have developed a demonstration where people can experience what the world looks like through bee eyes.

Lucas BeePilotBeePilot (Logo designed by Andrew Woolley)

Primarily developed by recent PhD graduate Lucas Wilkins (School of Engineering and Informatics), the BeePilot demo uses Oculus Virtual Reality headsets and gives the user a strong sense of what the world would look like to a bee with low resolution compound eyes. Large groups of primary school children have tried the demonstration whilst visiting the University of Sussex this summer, and a team also took the demonstration to the STEMNET Big Bang at the Ardingley show ground in July.

Lucas was supported in his work by supervisors Prof Thomas Nowotny and Prof Daniel Osorio, and the development of BeePilot was funded by the University of Sussex Widening Participation scheme.

Interested in Synaesthesia?

Frog who croaked blueYou may like Jamie Ward's book:

The Frog Who Croaked Blue

Everyone will be closely acquainted with at least 6 or 7 people who have synesthesia but you may not yet know who they are because, until very recently, synesthesia was largely hidden and unknown. Now science is uncovering its secrets and the findings are leading to a radical rethink about how our senses are organized. In this timely and thought-provoking book, Jamie Ward argues that sensory mixing is the norm even though only a few of us cross the barrier into the realms of synesthesia.

Quick thinking: New book explains the brain in 30-second chunks
30-Second BrainSussex brain experts have put their heads together to explain 50 of the most mind-blowing ideas in neuroscience, each in less than half a minute, for a new book (to be published on 6 March).

Brain store: Many parts of the brain take on specialist memory functions, according to content (such as knowledge versus past events) or process (such as recollection versus familiarity).

Challenging ideas about whether brain training can really improve your IQ, or if reason and emotion are opposites, 30 Second-Brain (Icon Books), edited by University of Sussex neuroscientist and Co-Director of the Sackler Centre for Conscious Science Professor Anil Seth, is aimed at anyone and everyone who is interested in how the brain works, what happens when it goes wrong, and how it helps define who we are.

Sussex contributors include, Professor Jamie Ward, whose research is largely devoted to  our understanding of unusual perceptual experiences, such as synaesthesia, in which one sensation (e.g. taste) may trigger another (e.g. the association of a colour with that taste); Professor Michael O’Shea, who writes about the structure of the brain and how our 90 billion neurons (brain cells) chatter among themselves to conjure up our self-awareness; and Dr Daniel Bor, who puts into simple terms how we now know that different areas of the brain are specialised for different functions, such as memory.

Professor Seth, who together with his colleague Dr Ryota Kanai reveals the latest knowledge on consciousness, says the collection is not at all exhaustive and its main purpose is to whet readers appetites rather than be a whole '”brain banquet”.

“Together with my co-authors we went through several stages of winnowing down a long list of topics. In the end, I believe we’ve come up with a selection that takes us from the basic building blocks of the brain all the way to how the cognition, perception, and even how understanding the brain can help us think about our role in society.

“The content was also shaped to take advantage of the particular expertise of the authors; for instance I was keen to include a whole section on 'consciousness', my own main research topic!” 

He adds: “I strongly believe that even complex ideas can be explained simply, if one chooses the right aspects to explain. Of course each '30-second' summary could be the basis of an entire book, but that's just the point.

“The ideas are presented in a way accessible to anyone, from teenagers to pensioners, without any particular background - just some desire to understand.  But because it’s completely up-to-date and written by experts, even those already in the field will find there are new and compelling ways to explain complex phenomena.”

Press Review 2013

The UoS Press Review of the Year 2013 includes some of the Sussex Neuroscience research that has gained recent media attention.

Brighton baby cuttlefish could change tanks

CuttlefishCuttlefish, which are part of the same ecological family as squids and octopus, can change their skin patterns to camouflage themselves in their surroundings.

The revelation has caught the attention of defence bosses who are keen to adapt their camouflage ability for use on tanks and other war vehicles.

University of Sussex experts will now carry out a series of studies on the sea creatures – with those in Whitehall watching on closely.

Neuroscientist Professor Daniel Osorio will lead the research.

He said: “If the process can be simulated by computers it’s not unfeasible that one day computer-linked cameras mounted on military vehicles could feed continuous data to colour-shifting receptors on the vehicles’ skin.”

Research carried out by his team has already shown cuttlefish can accurately mimic different shades of light and dark while resting on a variety of surfaces.

Further coverage of this story: The Argus and University news. For more information on Professor Osorio's research please refer to his lab site.

Artificial Bee Brain

Thomas Nowotny artificial brainListen to Dr Thomas Nowotny talk about his new project to build an artificial bee-brain.

"The green brain project is a collaborative project with the University of Sheffield and aims at creating models of the brain the integrate inputs from different senses with learning and decision making. Unlike its larger and older brother, the blue brain project, we are concentrating on the smaller, yet still very sophisticated, brains of honey bees and will use modern massively parallel but affordable GPU hardware. We will devise models of the visual (Sheffield) and olfactory (Sussex) system of the bee, and integrate them with reinforcement learning and decision making circuits. The entire model will run in real time on a GPU server and control an autonomous flying robot (quadrucopter), because without the closed-loop embedding in the environment our understanding of the bee brain would remain quite limited."

Further coverage of this project: BBC and Sunday Times.

New book on learning and memory edited by Professor Paul Benjamin, Sussex Neuroscience

Paul's book coverInvertebrate Learning and Memory. Handbook of Behavioral Neuroscience, Volume 22 (2013). Edited by Randolf Menzel and Paul R. Benjamin. Academic press/Elsevier ISBN 9780124158238.

Invertebrate Learning and Memory provides for the first time a comprehensive overview of studies on all aspects of learning and memory in invertebrate model systems. Forty-two chapters, written by internationally-recognized experts, are grouped into three sections: concepts, experimental approaches and specific case studies. Nearly 200 comprehensive figures accompany the text and digital versions are available for downloading from the companion website.

Invertebrate animals provide major conceptual insights into the mechanisms underlying learning and memory that are of general interest to neuroscience. Worms, snails, slugs, cuttlefish, crabs and insects adapt to environmental changes quickly by learning. Multiple forms of learning and processes of memory formation reach beyond elementary associative events to include cognitive aspects of behavior.  The nervous systems and brains of invertebrates consist of hundreds or thousands of neurons many of which are characterized anatomically and physiologically at the individual cell level or as groups of small numbers of cells- ideal conditions for studying the molecular, cellular and network properties underlying  learning-related neural and synaptic plasticity.

Printed and eBook copies of this book are available in the University of Sussex Library.