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  • 20 February 2006

Thinking ahead: Where we are going with brain research

Mind-boggling: Professor Michael OShea explains the brain

Mind-boggling: Professor Michael O'Shea explains the brain

What do we think of our brains? How much do we know about our brains? What is the connection between our brains and free will?

These are among the mind-boggling questions University of Sussex neuroscientist Professor Michael O'Shea will be addressing during his talk, 'The Brain - The Final Frontier?', at the Brighton Science Festival on February 24, 2006.

Using videos and computer graphics, Professor O'Shea will explore some of the tricks our brains play on our consciousness. He will also be looking at how far we have come in creating machines that work like brains.

Professor O'Shea, author of The Brain: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press) says: "Neuroscience is moving at a rapid pace. Through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) we have been able to localise functions of the brain - we know which parts of the brain control our speech, our movement, our emotions and memories. But we still don't know how the functions are performed."

One of the major advances has been in creating "brain-machine hybrids", by which a computer can process brain activity to activate a robot to carry out physical tasks. The future application of this might help those who have lost the use of limbs. Other examples of brain-machine hybrids include cochlear implants that create sound waves for those with hearing loss and, potentially, artificial retinas that could restore sight for the visually impaired.

But, says Professor O'Shea, it would be wrong to see the brain as little more than a highly sophisticated computer. "If we do, we will ultimately fail to understand the brain because the most interesting thing it does - thinking - is fundamentally not a computational process."

Indeed, thinking about how we think is one of the major conundrums for neuroscientists. As Professor O'Shea points out: "You might conclude that the brain is the most complex machine in the known Universe. But this may be nothing more than the opinion of your brain about itself." Thinking also throws up questions about consciousness and free will. "We are deluded into thinking that our conscious will is the driving force behind the brain's functions. But, actually, it's more likely that the brain process initiates the sense of consciousness and free will."

Professor O'Shea is director of the Sussex Centre for Neuroscience and is involved in several major research projects, including investigating the causes of brain tumours. His book, The Brain, is dedicated to his daughter, Linda, who died at the age of 11 in 1990 from a brain tumour. "We're still a long way from understanding what happens when cells become malignant," he says. " Linda would have died to day for the same reasons. But I hope that our research may help sufferers in the future."

Notes for editors

Professor Michael O'Shea's talk, The Brain - The Final Frontier? is at  6.00pm City College, Pelham St.  Brighton.


University of Sussex press office contacts: Jacqui Bealing and Maggie Clune. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

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