Steve Fleming

Cognitive Neuroscientist

London, UK

JOURNEY INTO THE MIND

Dr. Steve Fleming creates stunning visualisations of the human brain as part of his research at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London.

His work focuses on how the healthy mind supports conscious awareness, and he believes that investigating how self-reflection works might help us understand psychiatric and neurological disorders. His passion has led him to become one of the leading experts in his field.

Making it Visual

SELF-REFLECTION

Dr. Fleming uses some of the most advanced medical equipment in the world to conduct his research, recording everything from the brain’s oxygen levels to its magnetic activity. The human mind is vast and complex, providing a staggering amount of data and requires powerful computers to interpret it visually. Because of this, experiments are typically confined to the Wellcome Trust Centre’s state-of-the-art facility.

It meant Dr. Fleming had a problem: he only worked with participants who could come to him.

PAINTING A PICTURE

Focusing only on lab-based experiments limits the range of people who can be tested. Dr. Fleming needs to also untether himself from the lab for his research to have a broader focus. He needs to gather data in other settings such as hospitals and people’s homes. The equipment can be transported easily enough if it is handled with care, but finding a portable computer powerful enough to crunch the data and display the results is a challenge. His solution was to utilise a laptop with the most powerful graphics card he could find.

FLEXIBLE THINKING

Dr. Fleming’s experiment monitors the participant’s brain while they complete a highly detailed visual test. It means he needs a laptop with a graphics card able to handle the volume of data his equipment provides, as well as running the visual test. Immediately after the test he creates a 3D render of the results, providing him and the subject feedback without having to go back to the lab. It gives him the ability to react to unique readings, tweak settings on the fly and shed light on the inner workings of the human mind.

“A powerful graphics card enables us to create high-resolution images of brain activity”

Dr Steve Fleming

HOW STEVE CREATED THE IMPOSSIBLE

What does your research at UCL look at?

We study how the brain implements the different functions that support the mind. My particular area of research looks at how the brain creates self-awareness. Why do we have this ability to self-reflect? How does it go wrong in different neurological and psychiatric disorders?

Isn’t that hard to measure?

We’ll often ask a participant to carry out a task where they’re trying to self-monitor. They might be asked to rate whether they’ve made an error or how confident they are in their responses. By asking them to do that while we’re recording the activity we can then relate the brain activity to that process of being able to self-monitor.

How does your technology work?

We conduct our research by using equipment that allows us to create pictures of brain activity while people are carrying out different tasks. This allows us to create high-resolution, detailed images of the brain while people are carrying out tasks.

Then we also use two types of electroencephalography. Magneto electroencephalography (MEG) is the detection of subtle changes in the magnetic field around the head. And electroencephalography (EEG) is the detection of subtle changes in the electric field around the head. These two techniques allow us to, with very very fine grained resolution, to look at how the brain activity enfolds in time.

“We’re using images of the brain to try to understand how people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour are being generated”

Dr Steve Fleming

Wait… Electricity and magnets?

The brain is comprised of millions and millions of small cells called neurons. Those neurons communicate with each other using small electrical impulses. The brain is a hive of electrical activity.

Why does creating visualisations help your research?

In raw form the data from the techniques I mentioned earlier doesn’t tell us much. Once we process it, we can overlay it onto a high resolution brain image we obtain using MRI. We then visualise the spatial pattern of the activity to see what region in the brain its coming from. Having the high resolution three-dimensional render allows us to interpret our data and see which brain regions are playing a role in a particular cognitive function.

How does a powerful computer help?

We’re using images of the brain to try to understand how people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour are being generated. That produces a very high volume of data that needs to be reduced down into an easily interpretable format. One of the best ways of interpreting that data is by creating high resolution images that we can overlay on images of the structure of a person’s brain, visualise it in three dimensions, rotate it in three dimensions. All those functions require high-end graphics in order to enable us to do our research.