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Cognitive neuroscience may hold the key to combating overeating and obesity.

The Wales Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience was officially launched last week. Donna Pierz-Fennell explains how the institute will benefit both patients and Wales' growing reputation for cutting-edge research WALES is not only a place of fabulous scenery and vibrant culture - it is also becoming increasingly known as an incubator for world-class brain research. Although the country may be small in size, its universities have developed three of the top psychology departments in Europe, which are home to more than 250 academics and researchers and have brought in approximately pounds 11m in grants in the last three years.

To further capitalise on these strengths, the Welsh Assembly Government recently decided to invest more than pounds 5m to establish the new multi-centre Wales Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (WICN).

This institute draws together the three psychology faculties of Bangor, Cardiff and Swansea Universities with the intent to build upon and bridge the three universities' high quality academic environments and develop a world-leading institute for the study and application of cognitive and clinical neuroscience.

The Welsh Assembly Government's investment is intended to bring together cognitive neuroscience research groups in Bangor, Cardiff and Swansea in a form that will facilitate long-term all-Wales collaborations.

This is being promoted through a shared management structure, administrative support, additional academic appointments and equipment and technical acquisition that will create an institute with a research environment in cognitive neuroscience that is unique to Wales.

Now united through this common goal, the three partners can grow as one institute, to become a world leader in the study and application of cognitive and clinical neuroscience.

In the first year alone, WICN has been the catalyst for the recruitment of more than a dozen world-class researchers and the development of dozens of new cross-institute collaborative research projects and several conferences.

Over the coming years it is intended that WICN will reconfigure the neuroscience research groups in Wales to develop sustainable research collaborations and establish a cross-university graduate school.

WICN will engage the public more broadly through numerous public seminar series, school presentations, and outreach programmes for schoolchildren and young adults in Wales, with the goal of explaining the significance and potential of studying the brain and providing guidance about how this can lead to career opportunities in this vital area.

The institute will also continue to grow and to deepen the universities' range of partnerships with industry, healthcare, schools and the public.

The dynamic area of cognitive neuroscience research is changing the understanding of normal and damaged brain function in multiple ways, as well as aiding in the treatment of brain impairments such as head injury, stroke, dementia and schizophrenia.

From its origins as a discipline - it was created through the interactions of cognitive science, neuroimaging, and clinical neuroscience - cognitive neuroscience is now the dominant approach in the best psychology departments and neuroscience institutes in both North America and Britain.

Examples of collaborative research that has been furthered by this unique and powerful funding opportunity are demonstrated in areas as topical as substance abuse and overeating.

Miles Cox (Bangor), Emmanuel Pothos (Swansea), and Steve Hosier (Bangor) have measured excessive drinkers' distraction by alcohol stimuli, finding that the more that drinkers were distracted by alcohol, the less able they were to reduce their drinking during the following six months.

Katy Tapper (Swansea), Andrew Lawrence (Cardiff) and Emmanuel Pothos (Swansea) are examining a similar effect in the case of overeating.

It is hoped that such research will eventually lead to cognitive-style interventions for substance abuse and overeating - interventions that look at cognitive retraining as a means of supplementing more traditional, clinically-oriented, therapies.

Adrian Burgess and Andy Parrott (Swansea) have presented further work in the area of substance abuse as the very first empirical findings from any study to be funded by WICN.

In their study, drug-free cannabis and ecstasy users were assessed on two memory tasks. The results suggest that drug users may be psycho-biologically impaired, even before they are aware of any cognitive deficits, although further studies are needed to replicate this original finding.

Simon Dymond (Swansea), Elanor Hinton and Ulrich von Hecker (Cardiff) are a WICN-funded team of psychologists who are seeking to discover how people are able to reason with newly-learned information.

For example, when people learn that A is less than B, B is less than C and C is less than D, then it is found that people automatically infer the unlearned relationship that A is less than D. By studying the brain activity of people while they solve such tasks as these, the team hopes to understand more about how and when different brain areas are involved in this important reasoning ability.

At Bangor and Cardiff Universities, Annukka Lindell and Lewis Bott - another WICN-funded team - are looking at how the brain interprets human communications that are not intended to be understood literally.

For instance, when someone asks, "Can you pass the salt?" they are not usually asking whether someone is physically able to pass the salt, but are asking if they will acknowledge the request and perform the requested activity.

This type of non-literal communication is not very well understood, but occurs in everyday communication, and it is possible that the results have implications for people who have difficulty communicating, such as people with autism.

This reconfiguration and collaboration of neuroscience research groups in Wales will develop a multi-centre, multi-disciplinary research institute that has the potential to benefit the people of Wales by bringing the fruits of the academic research into communities, either by making neuroscience accessible and interesting to adults and children through public lectures and visits to schools, or more indirectly through partnerships with businesses.

The WICN aims to enhance the lives of people in Wales by making information and resources available to both individuals and organisations about the mystery and miracle that is our brain.

Donna Pierz-Fennell is the manager of the Wales Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 3, 2007
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