Colin Blakemore – A Roller Coaster Life in Science

On a fall day in October 1971, the Shoreham Hotel in Washington D.C. hosted a rare group of visitors. A thousand-something-researchers from the bourgeoning field of neuroscience had gathered at the enormous property on the edge of Rock Creek Park. The hotel was known for being a watering hole for socialites and political dignitaries. The Blue Room nightclub, located on the bottom level of the five-story hotel, was the kind of place John F. Kennedy would take Jackie for a night out on the town. On this day, it staged the birth of the Society for Neuroscience. Sir Colin Blakemore, then a fresh-faced 27-year-old with a newly acquired PhD, recalls a telling anecdote from the halls of the hotel during the first annual meeting.

Colin Blakemore. Image: Wikimedia Commons

 Colin Blakmore will be presenting at the Lund University symposium The Amazing Brain. The seminar is full but will be live-streamed online on 6 September. Tune in!

“I remember running into some eminent scientists, Nobel Prize winners in fact, in the corridor, and they were complaining because there were two or three parallel sessions going on and they were saying: this is ridiculous, we want to go to all of these things, there are just too many people here”. Today the event gathers more than 30,000 people every year.

Blakemore’s account tells a story many perhaps do not know. Before the 1970’s neuroscience was not a course found in university application folders. Neither was it a title any researcher would bestow on themselves. Colin Blakemore used to call himself a neurophysiologist. Oh, how the times have changed.

On September 6th, during the Amazing Brain Week celebrating Lund University’s 350 anniversary, Colin Blakemore will deliver the keynote address during the main symposium. The talk will depict and celebrate the enormous progress the field of neuroscience has made over the past half-century.

“When I started out there were prevailing myths about the brain that have been entirely displaced since. As a medical student, I learned that the all the neurons that we will ever have are created before birth and that the connections between neurons are genetically programmed and when damaged can never be replaced or reorganized. These theories, which were the basis of my understanding of the brain, are wrong. They’ve been overturned by a remarkable series of discoveries about how the brain reprograms itself throughout life. The breakthroughs on the plasticity of the brain has completely revolutionized the field.”

Colin believes that much of the progress that’s been made is down to sheer numbers. The amount of people involved in neuroscience have simply exploded over the past 30-40 years and neuroscience is now taught in universities across the globe. Today, it’s a rich research field where the opportunities to make new discoveries are probably larger than in any other field in the medical sciences.

The mystery of human vision

Throughout his career, Colin Blakemore has been fascinated with the flexibility of the brain. Much of his research has been dedicated towards understanding how different centers in the brain communicate and how synaptic circuits are built and rebuilt to adjust to new environments and challenges. Today, he directs a center for the study of the senses. One project is looking at the ways our brain works to translate two-dimensional images into 3D-reality. Professor Blakemore has teamed up with a couple of renowned artist, painters David Hockney and Patric Hughes, to delve deeper into brain’s ability to produce depth in vision.

“It might seem a trivial question but it’s not. It’s one of the most sophisticated computational processes that our brain performs. The image on our retina is two-dimensional, a flat picture. Artists have long studied this topic because they’ve had to use different tricks to create depth. I’m interested in how the brain puts together all the different information that it gets from the retina and other sensory input to then create three-dimensional spaces. Visual artists approach this question from a very different perspective and together we are now trying to map the mystery that is human vision.”

In the eye of the storm 

One might assume that the career of a knighted neuroscientist has been marked solely by discoveries and decorations. Colin Blakemore’s journey in academia tells another story. In the late 1980’s he was targeted by activist groups against animal testing, tied to his research projects. He was grossly misrepresented in the media and at the height of the controversy fringe extremists in the animal liberation community turned to methods of terror to promote their cause. While large parts of the neuroscience community used these methods, deemed uncontroversial in many other countries, one scientist was singled out as the main focus of their wrath. That man was Colin Blakemore.

I had always told anyone who asked precisely what my research involved, what it was for, what the benefits and costs were. Perhaps it was because of my frankness that I was singled out. But to me, I didn’t have a choice. The only choice I had was to stand firm and defend what I did or to simply give up. Some people have given up under similar sorts of attacks but you know, this was my livelihood, it was my passion, it was my job. Somehow it was an obvious choice to fight the opposition every step of the way. Of course, it was all at a prize. My wife and children were threatened. We received envelopes with razor blades in them, we also received fake bombs and real bombs sent to our house.”

Colin Blakemore believes that the issue was mishandled by the broader scientific community. The level of violence and extreme activism scared a lot of people and as a result they didn’t speak out at all. This gave way to sensationalist speculation by the media. For some time, Colin found himself alone in the eye of the storm. As time went on the research community organized their efforts and started providing open, honest and detailed information on the practices inside labs across the country. This had a positive knock-on effect in the media and slowly the tide turned.

“Now the press was able to get comments, explanations and accounts and the attitude changed dramatically. You simply don’t read hostile, critical accounts on animal research in British newspapers anymore. It’s no longer a worthwhile news story and today there are very few actively campaigning against animal research. I don’t believe history will repeat itself here. Public opinion has swayed, while media and the government are far more supportive and the general knowledge on the importance of animal research is much broader in society.”

From Pariah to Protagonist

The witch hunt on Colin Blakemore came to be an acid test of extraordinary proportions. Quite unexpectedly, the trying times turned into an involuntary crash course in public engagement. It gave him a clear idea of how the media functioned, for better or worse, and it highlighted the importance of promoting transparency when communicating with the public. Colin Blakemore has since become one of the most trusted go-to scientists among journalists in the British media landscape. If anything, over the years he has been reinforced in his beliefs that communicating with people outside the immediate scientific circles is of the utmost importance. For a number of reasons.

“Whatever science you’re involved, most of your funding comes from people, through taxes or from people buying drugs if you work in the pharma industry. So, we all depend upon the good will of the public. Most countries spend a lot of money on science and so it has to be justified against all the other ways people’s money could be used. So, it’s important for scientists to report back to the public, to involve the public. We are in the end, public servants.”

“From a personal perspective, I also enjoy it. It’s very reinforcing and it’s very useful to me. Talking to people who are not scientists about why you are doing your own science is a very good way of justifying to yourself why what you’re doing is important. After speaking to the public I often become much more confident about my own science.”

One is easily impressed by the stamina of Colin Blakemore. At the age of 73, he is showing no signs of slowing down. Not from his science projects, nor from his role as an ambassador for neuroscience in the public debate. Perhaps he owes some of his endurance to a personal hobby that he picked up in California at the beginning of the 80’s. His visit to the Salk institute coincided with the jogging ‘boom’ in the US.

Everywhere people were jogging about in the most glamorous outfits, with shiny trainers, preferably with a perfectly groomed little dog on a leash by their side. I just thought I’d try it, without the dog, and slowly I got hooked.”

Sir Colin Blakemore has since run twenty-something marathons. Let’s hope he keeps on running.

Interview by Jens Persson, Lund University

september 4, 2017

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