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Small Wales develops a big brain academy.

Byline: By Paul Walker

Wales is not only a place of fabulous scenery and vibrant culture, but it's also becoming increasingly known as an incubator for world-class brain research.

Although Wales may be small in size, its universities have developed three of the top psychology departments in Europe.

These three faculties - home to more than 250 academics and researchers - have brought in approximately pounds 11 million in grants in three years.

To further capitalise on these strengths, as part of their Reaching Higher strategy, the Welsh Assembly Government recently decided to build upon these assets by investing 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, a world leader in the study and application of cognitive and clinical neuroscience.

In the first year alone, WICN has prompted both the hiring 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 re-configure 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.

Finally, the institute will 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 it's origins as a discipline that 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 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. They found the more 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), Emmanuel Pothos (Swansea) are examining a similar effect in the case of overeating. It is hoped 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 first empirical findings from any study to be funded by WICN. In their study, drug-free cannabis/Ecstasy users were assessed on two memory tasks. The drug users demonstrated a significant EEG deficit, although actual task performance was only marginally impaired. It suggests 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.

This reconfiguration and collaboration of neuroscience research groups in Wales will develop a multi-centre, multi-disciplinary research institute with the potential to benefit the people of Wales through bringing the fruits of academic research, whether directly by making neuroscience accessible and interesting to all, or indirectly via partnerships with businesses.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 26, 2007
Words:709
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