Accessible science: Denise Camilleri interviews Claude Bajada

Accessible science: Denise Camilleri interviews Claude Bajada


What is your work? The real aim of my work is, what I love doing, is learning more about this wonderful structure over here, I’m going to take this brain over here, because I think it is more beautiful. In fact this brain is modelled after a real brain. This brain’s name is Charlie, and it was modelled after a real woman’s brain. I’m just really fascinated by the brain, I like them, I like the way they look. I am impressed that from this little thing that sits in your head, really, just feel… This is the size of a real brain, a real brain is that size, it feels a little bit different in real life… but it’s about that size, and everything we do, comes from here. The fact that we are talking right now is because of this… and I want to know everything there is to know about the brain, and what I focus most on is the structure of the brain. And to do that we need special machines because we as humans are quite attached to our brains. And without our brains… we cannot just open up someone’s head and look into it. That would be a problem. That’s the problem with cutting it in two … Yeah, exactly. We’re not gonna do that to anyone. I don’t think anyone would volunteer for that. No. That won’t be fun. So we need something right? Perhaps a camera to take pictures. But a regular camera won’t do that, it won’t just take a picture through the head to see the brain. So we have special machines called MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging) scanners. They are these big machines… It’s a bit of a strange thing. It’s really a big magnet, but through this big magnet it can do really special things. It can look into our head. And we can get information, and we can see different parts of the brain. And how does the brain work? First, we are trying to see what different parts of the brain do. We know very much what the brain looks like, and we need to understand how it is made up. So this is where all the processing [happens] and this is the wires, so how everything is connected to each other. It’s through those connections that… So let’s say… A bunch of people are friends, and as individuals, we know a lot of things I know things, you know things. Your father knows things, my mother knows things. Right. But through our relationships, we know more things. And it is sort of the same thing with the brain. Different parts of the brain do different things. So if I told you that this part of the brain over here receives visual information, and this part of the brain, receives what we hear. Another part of the brain is connected to both of these parts. It is through these connections that the wonderful things that we do happen. How is it, for example, different for people like me, for Down’s people? So how is the brain with someone with Down’s Syndrome? I am not a clinical researcher, I do not do clinical studies. So I do not work with people with conditions, in fact most of the subjects of my work are anyone you find on the street, generally students as they have a lot of time and they can take MRI’s easily. They are relatively free, these scans can take about an hour of your time. The techniques that are used, we were talking about MRI scans … So this is the technique that can be used to look into the brain of someone with Down’s Syndrome. I’m sure there’s plenty of research on Down’s Syndrome. Your work helps people? To give some concrete examples, the most obvious, for my work, I focus on the connections in the brain and how everything is wired, and this is really important for neurosurgery. When a surgeon needs to operate on the brain, they want to make sure they take out the smallest amount. They want to make sure that, if there is a part of the brain that is sick, they remove all of it. But they also want to make sure that it’s as small as possible. With imaging technology and the techniques I work with, so functional MRI’s and structural MRI’s to understand the connections, we can perhaps help surgeons make sure they only remove the parts that they really need to. Does the brain change? Yeah, it does actually. So the first obvious way the brain changes is as we grow up. When you see a brain forming it looks very different. In fact, the brain starts off its life as a tube. And then it grows, and it grows in different places at different rates. So some parts grow more, some parts grow less. And then it starts folding and becoming from a tube, it starts turning into this thing that we see over here. Actually I have a good friend of mine working on, trying to understand how this process happens. As we don’t really know how this process happens, we know it does, but we don’t exactly know how. Everyone has the same brain? Not exactly, so I like to think about this in terms of… We both have eyes and we both have a nose, a mouth and ears. But they are not exactly the same. It’s really hard to describe that two people with the … well we sort of have the same face, We have the same features on our face, but we are not the same. I mean someone can instantly recognise that you are you, and I am me. And if you work enough with MRI scans and look at enough brains you will start realising that one brain starts looking very different to another. So there are definitely these differences in brains. And of course there are some bigger differences and some smaller differences. There are some people who have difficulties in one area and excel in other areas. And I know that there is work on people who are blind, they have problems with their eyes and they cannot see. We keep coming back to this part of the brain, which is the primary visual cortex … so people who can’t see They can’t read regular books, they won’t read this THINK magazine as it is printed out right now. But we know that there is braille, and so people can learn to read braille. And it has been shown that people who read in braille, the activity in the brain shows up in their visual cortex. So it’s almost like they are seeing the bumps on the page that they are touching. Thank you for visiting and bringing these THINKs we have here. Thanks, Denise, for asking these questions, it was fun. Maybe I could not to answer all of them, but it was fun.

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