Brain Science, Net Zero and the Black Sea

11 December 2023


Brain Science, Net Zero and the Black Sea

Authors: Zelna Weich, Jie Lin Li (CUSPE) and Dana Galili

Members of CSaP’s Horn Fellowship met in Cambridge to discuss topics including early-child interventions, technological developments to assist the UK in meeting its Net Zero goals, and the history of the Black Sea region.

Psychology, psychiatry, and the economics of early intervention

Duncan Astle (Gnodde Goldman Sachs Professor of Neuroinformatics, Department of Psychiatry) provided insight into the flaws of categorising neurodevelopmental conditions. His research group demonstrated that AI-inspired data-driven approaches could stratify children, highlighting the poor fit of the diagnoses. It was explained that every child’s brain connectivity was shaped by a fine balance between two competing constraints – the cost and value of connectivity (which are themselves subject to genetic and environmental influences) – leading to great variability. Further discussion explored how schools currently provide support according to a child’s diagnosis, but an alternative approach is needed to foster a true sense of inclusion. To facilitate this, Professor Astle’s team have created a free resource for teachers and educators: Belonging in Schools.

Also focussing on children’s development, Gabriella Conti (Professor of Economics, Department of Economics and Social Research Institute, UCL) emphasised how investing in children’s health and wellbeing in their first two years can improve outcomes in health, employment and educational attainment in the long term. These investments were shown to provide cascading returns that far outweighed the initial cost. Using an economic framework, Professor Conti evaluated the impact of some early-childhood interventions over time, including SureStart in the UK and a home pre-school programme in Ecuador. However, these interventions came with their own obstacles. For instance, scaling up successful interventions can be challenging due to the need to tailor them to the specific needs of families.

While many aspects of health are divided into the mental and physical, Dr Camilla Nord (Assistant Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Psychiatry) expressed that this distinction is not clear-cut. She explained that the body’s physical signals are detected, represented and interpreted by the brain as emotions (for instance, hunger can be perceived as anger). One brain region in particular, the insula, corresponds to perception of internal physiological measures ('interoception'). A reduced ability to detect these signals accurately has been linked to many mental health conditions such as anxiety, autism and schizophrenia. Physical factors can impact mental states, for example the time of the day and subjective wakefulness impacts the motivation to make an effort. Likewise, the brain’s expectations can change how one metabolises food. Dr Nord suggested that understanding these body-mind interactions could aid in finding novel treatments or optimally pairing physiological treatments (e.g. medications, exercise, diet) with psychological therapies. More on these topics can be found in her book The Balanced Brain, published in September 2023.

Net Zero: the carbon cycle and new technologies

Alexandra Turchyn (Professor of Biogeochemistry, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge) gave a summary of the earth’s carbon cycle. Professor Turchyn’s work has focussed on the processes by which carbon is removed from the surface of the earth and sequestered into geological carbon stores in oceans. She noted the impact of microbial life on these processes, for example their role in consuming organic carbon on the ocean floor driving the production of authigenic carbonate. While Professor Turchyn historically studied these processes over the scale of millions of years, her recent work has adopted a more local and short-term focus, examining the geochemistry of East Anglian salt marshes. These coastal wetlands feature sulphide-rich and iron-rich pond types in very close proximity. As sulphide-rich ponds store significant amounts of greenhouse gases, including methane, studies such as these are essential to make informed management decisions about these ecosystems.

Moving onto the technologies behind the mitigation of climate change, Professor Sir Richard Friend (Director of Research, Department of Physics, University of Cambridge) gave a talk on the role of different technologies in helping, as well as hindering, the UK in achieving Net Zero. He highlighted the urgency of improving the National Grid and cautioned against the use of hydrogen in applications like domestic heating. He also warned that more ambitious technologies like nuclear fusion and space-based solar power, were unlikely to be viable before 2050. He introduced the use of perovskite technologies in solar cells, which offer a remarkable improvement in efficiency. Additionally, Professor Friend discussed his work on the novel application of the light-emitting properties of perovskites to make remarkably efficient LEDs, which he is currently working on as a co-founder and board director of Helio Display Materials. Overall, he impressed his commitment to curiosity in scientific research, whilst encouraging realistic thinking around large scale implementation of such research.

Akshay Rao (Professor of Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge) built on Professor Friend's insights on novel materials and technologies for photovoltaics. He noted that the costs of producing photovoltaic cells had declined rapidly in the last few decades resulting in a shift in research towards enhancing efficiency. To overcome limitations of current solar cells and to harness energy from longer-wavelength photons, Rao's group and spin-off startup Cambridge Photon Technology (CPT) introduce photon multiplier (PM) materials into current solar cell designs. PM materials split and increase the number of infrared photons, enhancing solar energy harvest. Another spin off from Professor Rao’s academic work, Illumion, is a tool for researchers working to make improvements in batteries. Illumion uses charge photometry to visualise changes in the charge of individual active particles during battery operation, aiding in understanding degradation and research extending battery lifetimes alongside improvements in fast-charging batteries. These innovations contribute significantly to the ongoing progress in renewable energy and energy storage technologies.

The Black Sea

A discussion with maritime historian, David Abulafia (Professor Emeritus of Mediterranean History, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge) explored the role of the Black Sea in the movement of people and goods, and the migration of ideas and cultural phenomena. He gave a fascinating insight into the historical role of the Black Sea in Eurasia, its fluctuation between being a globalised and an isolated space, and on the lasting importance of this region to trade in commodities like grain. Questions and discussion focussed on the importance of these historical phases in the current Ukrainian conflict, and the respective roles of the grain trade and slave trade around the Black Sea, giving a rich historical context to modern geopolitical concerns.

Banner image credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen.