Addictive science – Alex Morley joins Real Scientists!

This week we’re happy to have Alexander Morley curating Real Scientists! Alex is a PhD student in neuroscience at the University of Oxford, UK, and is usually tweeting as @alex__morley. We asked Alex to tell us a little something about himself and his science, you can read all about it below:

I always wanted to be a doctor. I guess I thought that science was cool but didn’t fancy sitting in a lab all day (having no clue what sitting in a lab all day really meant). So I ended up studying medicine at Oxford. In your third year you basically just choose an area of science and stick with that for a year; and having always been obsessed with brains, and specifically what drugs do to the way we think, so I chose neuroscience. During that year I had a tutorial from someone who was doing some awesome experiments using closed-loop optogenetic experiments- silencing neurons, using light, based on their activity at that time. I met him afterwards for a coffee to learn more and he asked me if I wanted to apply to do a PhD with him (a decision I’m sure he rues to this day …).

I think neuroscience has for me the best combination of “we know absolutely nothing” and “ooo maybe it could work like this” (mainly the former IMO). I love it when people say “it’s all in your head” and I’m like “duh .. so’s everything!”. To me the brain is where it all starts and finishes. That said I’m not super philosophical about the research I do, even when we are trying to work out something as fundamental as the neural basis for memory.  In order to do this we do “large-scale multi-unit recordings in behaving rodents” rodents (rats and mice). That basically means we build a tiny drive (like the size of a die) that sits on top of a mouse’s head allowing us to record from hundreds of neurons simultaneously while it runs around doing whatever it wants -or doing a task that we’ve set. While a lot of memory research focuses on a region known as the hippocampus which provides the brain with a spatial map of the environment I record from other structures that interface with the hippocampus to look at other aspects of memory such as affect (emotion) , reward, motivation and decision-making.

I’m lucky to be in a field where most people say “that’s cool” just by saying that I work on memory, whether they’re just being polite or not I don’t know but I think it’s a seriously cool field. In terms of the bigger picture what originally motivated me to start this project was because very little is known about the differences between how we store positive vs. negative associations -i.e. what pathways are shared and what are different. This is important to me, and I hope you guys too, because building on this research we might be able to eventually work out the contribution of each of these pathways to addiction (reward vs. fear of withdrawal) & also depression (anhedonia -lack of pleasure vs. increased sensitivity to negative life experiences).  Before I started my PhD I was pretty meh about the fact that I would have to spend most of my time analysing my data rather than doing experiments.

In a year and a half I have come full circle and am now a full-blown computer nerd.

I love programming and electronics and so try and use the few skills I have to contribute to Open Source projects as well as advocating pretty hard to bring some of these practices to neuroscience (i.e. Open Science stuff).

ForRealSciBlogI love bikes, and maybe weirdly I love fixing bikes just as much. My brother-in-law managed to persuade me to sign up to a crazy cycle in April round Mallorca (312km, 5km of elevation … eek) so am training pretty hard for that at the moment. The picture is of me having cycled 200 km for my friends wedding last summer, if I had give it a caption it then it would be “safety never takes a holiday”.

My favorite day off? That’s a toughie. Dunno but has to be outside. On a mountain ideally. On a bike, skis or shoes I don’t mind which. Wouldn’t mind a cold beer or two either. For sure the only negative thing about the science I do is that I have to do it inside … I am honestly considering moving into altitude medicine as a next step.


Please welcome Alex to Real Scientists!

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