From the frying pan into the fire!

Two weeks spent in Italy were wonderful, but the weather was hot. I got quite a surprise when I got back to Paris for my last week there. When I had left there the weather was very cool – indeed most of May & part of June had been that way. But things changed quickly – a stalled weather system over Europe was going to make things very toasty – bringing southerly winds from Africa. So we were going to have ‘la canicule‘ or heat wave to get through. This was potentially a very serious problem: I saw on the French national news that an estimated 4% of French households have airconditioning [compare that to ~90% in the USA]. My 6th floor apartment of course was not airconditioned & my way of cooling it was to open every single window after sunset [& have the windows & shutters closed during the day]. That actually worked a treat – provided the temperature drops down at night. But during a canicule that does not really happen & there is no breeze at night, no respite. So I got prepared this time, because I had experienced that in the same apartment last year on sabbatical [thankfully only for a very brief time]. I went out & bought a fan to leave in the place for these rare occurrences. But I had to assemble the thing & did not have all of the tools to do it. I literally got 90% done & could not finish the last part because I either needed an extra hand or a special tool. Ironic & tragically funny at the same time. I was comparing heat stories with a friend who was staying with family in Germany while waiting for a new work visa – her problem is that they could not find the fan that one of her family members had ‘put in a safe place’ – so they were also having a similar problem! I finally got it fixed when my landladies stopped over as they were taking a pet to the vet in Paris. It took 3 of us to get it going. Ironically, I was only going to be there for 2 more nights… Here is a sunset from one of those nights. Looks as hot as Hades, but thankfully our temperatures were nowhere like those in Germany & Spain at the time…


The day I returned to Paris was the longest day of the year – right in time for the Fête de la Musique which takes place on the night of the 21st June every year. It started in Paris in 1982. Everyone comes out into the street & makeshift stages pop up in neighborhoods. Anyone can sing or play music of their choice – so of course you get the good & the bad as well. More organized [& even televised events] take place in Paris, Nice etc. where well-known singers all come out to perform one song each. Music plays long into the night – which can be quite late since it does not really get dark until about 11 pm. As I starting to pack up some of my stuff I was very happy to be listening to some nice jazz filtering in through my open windows. [I missed this event last year because I was at the OHBM scientific meeting in Singapore.]

At the start of the week I had to attend & speak at a conference organized between Sorbonne Université & my own Indiana University – on artificial intelligence. What do I know about artificial intelligence, I hear many of you cry? Well not much. I had to present the work of a colleague & made sure that I made that clear…

One day we ended up having lunch in the same ‘tower’ that we were in last year for a similar meeting. The view from the 25th floor of the Zamansky Tower [of UPMC, or the science/technology campus of the Sorbonne] where we were was stunning. This year though, Notre Dame looked very different. Compare the two images below, the top one is from this year in late June and the bottom one was taken from the same location about a year ago.



The damage in the top image is very evident & is quite extensive. I had previously posted images of the Notre Dame taken from the other side of the city – from 56th floor of the Tour Montparnasse [see images a few posts ago]. Those images did not look as bad as this one. Now I understand why people here think that it will likely be impossible to renovate it in the 5 year period proposed by Emmanuel Macron.

As part of the conference we had a collective dinner that was organized at a very well-known restaurant near the old Sorbonne campus called Bouillon Racine [see] in the 6th arrondisement. The word ‘bouillon’ is apparently the precursor word for ‘brasserie’ – the latter of which was originally used to designate places that brewed their own beer etc.  Bouillon Racine is quite an institution in the area – being around since 1906 & being lavishly decorated in an exuberant Art Nouveau style, as the panorama image below shows:


It was a very toasty affair because we sat upstairs – with all the windows open, as can be seen from the street view:


I would like to return there when the weather is cooler & one could sample some of the more heavier, traditional dishes. That particular night was one of those nights where you drink copious amounts of water, very little wine & sit forward in your chair so that the sweat can run down the small of your back. That said, however, we had a beautiful dinner & the conversation flowed nicely. It was really great to get to know colleagues from the Sorbonne as well as my own IU, that I had not really interacted with previously. Nice! After dinner, I retired to the coolness of the Metro for a fairly quick ride home. Happily, as I flung open my apartment windows that night we actually had a bit of a breeze – bearable. That said, however, the mosquitoes this year were really abundant & mean – probably the artifact of a cool & wet spring. Last year I was in the same apartment in summer & did not have that problem at all, so this was an unpleasant surprise…

The rest of the week was spent in dinners out catching up with friends to say adieu, finishing up at the institute, as well as packing up & cleaning out the apartment. Ironically, the last day I was there cleaning the apartment was the hottest one of all! So I made sure I got up early & moved my baggage out to a nearby hotel. I then fortified myself with a croissant from my favorite bakery & declared war on the apartment. The worst part was the dust – everything gets so dusty quickly when all the windows are open to a very busy street. Happily I was done by noon – so did not have to work during the hottest part of the day. Instead I joined my colleague for a long & languid lunch [which I followed up with a siesta later in the afternoon…]. It was a really nice time to spend some last hours together. I decided I would have a decent size meal, as my plan was to have just a snack for dinner. So I had a steak tartare & frites & a salad from my favorite local brasserie & a place I like to hang out in regularly. That way I could say my goodbyes to the lovely staff who work there. I have spoken about it previously, you might remember that… My colleague managed to do a stealth move & secretly paid for my lunch. What a lovely surprise that was!


Thus fortified, I went back to my apartment to give back my keys & say goodbye to the gardienne of the apartment building &, of course, my landladies. They were hanging out in Paris that weekend because their cat had another vet’s appointment. So they insisted that we should go out for dinner & bailing out was not an option. We went to one of their favorite Thai places in our quartier [Thaï Papaya, 51 Rue des cinq Diamants, 75013 Paris]. The food was really delightful & pretty authentic. It has been years since I had a coconut based Thai veggie red curry whose whereabouts I could track exactly through my digestive system! Delightful! A great way to beat the heat. I remember I used to do this exactly that as a student in Australia when we did not have airconditioning – a Malaysian or Thai curry was just the thing to make one feel better during a heatwave.


It was also good to sit pretty much out on the street instead of the back of the restaurant – much more comfortable. Sprayed myself with a ton of insect repellent. I think that that coupled with the garlic & chillies frightened away those nasty mozzies.


My landladies insisted on paying for the dinner – I did feel a bit uncomfortable about that, but there was no way fighting that, they were adamant…

So it was time to head back across the Atlantic again, back home – so nice to have that Delta Airlines direct flight between Indy & CDG in Paris! Other half was away in Australia, so we had made a plan to exchange cars in the airport car park. The trick was to ensure that we both knew which car it was going to be so that I would have the correct keys. The other thing: text a picture of where the car was parked & the parking receipt. Easy peasy – we have done this before! Nice to get home to see the greenness of the garden etc. And of course to have an unpacking assistant or two to help out…

UnpackingAssistantFuture posts will deal with more scientific topics, pet peeves [not of the four-legged kind] & important issues that concern our profession etc.

I hope you are all well wherever you find yourselves in the world…


Is my brain activity the same either side of the Atlantic? Seriously.

These last couple of weeks have been really busy – so much to do before the OHBM meeting in Rome! Trying to finish manuscripts, working on scientific posters with colleagues, as well as preparing a couple of talks for Rome – one for an OHBM Symposium I have co-organized & another for a Symposium at the Sapienza Università di Roma.

The other thing we have been trying to do is to finish up our study of ‘living phantoms’ – my colleague & I have already made recordings of each other’s brain electrical activity and brain blood flow on the other side of the Atlantic, in my lab & in the 3 T MRI-scanner in our Imaging Research Facility at Indiana University [IU]. So now we are doing the same thing on this side of the Atlantic. The image below shows me wearing our 256-sensor cap [to measure electrical brain activity] at IU. The contraption I am sitting in [image below] is a photogrammetry system in my lab – a device that has 11 cameras that capture a picture of my head & where the sensors are located on the head.


This allows a 3D map of the head surface with sensor positions to be made, which can then be subsequently merged with an anatomical MRI scan of my whole head, which ultimately looks something like this [image below], which was taken a few years earlier.


Perhaps you can see that characteristic nose of mine in that hairless & colorless image. If you look carefully you can probably recognize my facial features – if you already know me well. This, of course, is a real ethical issue for subject privacy in labs all over the world. In functional MRI studies it is usual to ‘strip’ away the tissues of the head & face to leave only the brain – which of course is hard to identify. In some of our brain electrical activity [electroencephalography or EEG] studies this is not possible. We need to use the surface of the head/face & also consider how well the different tissues of the head conduct electricity  [i.e. the spontaneous brain activity that our brain emits 24/7] for certain types of very specialized data analyses. [This is not the case in all EEG studies – many studies use only the EEG traces & 3D maps of the head are not needed.]

One can also measure the tiny magnetic fields that the brain emits using a method known as magnetoencephalography [MEG for short]. If one wants to really go over the top, one can do both MEG & EEG at the same time. This is what I did this week in CENIR at the ICM. First, the EEG sensors were put on my head, with extra leads to also measure eye movements & cardiac activity. We also need to make a map of the EEG sensors on my head – but here a slightly different method was used. A radio frequency transmitter at the back of the chair I am sitting on [that you cannot see] puts out a signal whose strength varies as a function of 3D distance from it [a polhemus system] . The experimenter uses a wand-like device [a radio frequency receiver] to touch the central location of each EEG sensor & measure the signal strength [& therefore the sensor’s position on the head]. The ‘Biggles’ googles I am wearing also have this position sensing in them, so that if I move my head even slightly the measurement system will compensate for that…


Once we had the sensors localized in 3D space, off came the goggles & it was time to ‘gel’ ’em up i.e. put in some conductive ‘goop’ to provide a good contact between my scalp & each sensor. This is always the fun part & takes quite a bit of time – the goop is usually cold & the experimenters have exfoliate the scalp as they go – yes indeed, one has a spa treatment for the face & head for this experiment… After a lot of checking that the contact between sensors & scalp is good, it is time to go into the shielded chamber, where the recording will take place. There I am fitted into the MEG helmet – a rigid device with sensors embedded in liquid helium. The thing weighs a lot & sits in a gantry that is adjustable. You have to make sure that your head is on contact with the MEG helmet [completely the opposite of being in an MRI scanner where you cannot touch the headcoil or the bore of the magnet].


Before we started all of this & changed some of my clothing [PJ pants], took off all of my jewelry & watch etc. We had done a quick check to see that I did not have any residual magnetization in my body [this includes clothing such as metal clips on bras etc & also sometimes dental fillings, for example]. If there is something magnetic on the person’s body – such as clothing etc. one would have to change completely into the PJ set that is supplied. Similarly, shoes also come off & little booties are issued. For dental fillings that are a problem the head can be ‘degaussed’ using a wand-like device – makes me think of ‘aura cleansing’ when I see it done. 🙂 This time I did not need to be degaussed even though I was expecting to have to do so because I had an MRI scan at IU as part of this study & made sure that it was done at least 6 weeks before having this MEG study…

The shielded room is a minimalist place to be sure – nice clean white interior with minimal clutter. There is no electrical equipment is inside the room – the idea is to keep all magnetic fields out – including that from our own planet. This is because the magnetic fields we measure from the brain are really tiny & are indeed many, many orders of magnitude smaller than the Earth’s magnetic field… The shielded room is also soundproof, once the door is sealed, so all communication with experimenters occurs via a MEG-compatible intercom system. In the control room, the experimenters can monitor what I am up to in there at all times – cameras monitor me, as well as all the sensors whose activity is displayed on monitors.



We were doing a ‘resting state’ study on me & also my colleague across 2 different continents – so we are being studied on either side of the Atlantic with multiple assessment modalities. We will look to see how we can integrate these datasets & also look for how consistent the profiles of activity are across the two measurements. Our plan is to share the data with colleagues in an open science framework, but we will have to do some gymnastics with data formatting first, so that it is in a new and desirable format [BIDS] that will allow more people to interact with it.


One of the tough things about doing a resting state study is ‘staying on task’ i.e. keeping one’s eyes open & fixating on a cross on the wall of the chamber, but letting one’s mind wander. We are doing 4 x 10 minute recordings of MEG & EEG [we also did that for our EEG only study at IU, & our functional MRI studies on both sides of the Atlantic].

What is more fascinating to me personally is how the flow of thoughts runs during this time – it is interesting to monitor this in oneself. The thing that struck me the most was that I think in a couple of languages [& can force myself to think in a third]. I had not really realized how much I actually switch between them… that was what I learned the most about myself from doing this study. It was also interesting to see what happens when you are in an environment under sensory deprivation. As I noted, the room was white, with a black fixation cross on the wall. What was cool was that during the last 10 minute run [i.e. after I had been trying to stare at that fixation cross for over half an hour] I started to get some interesting visual hallucinations. The seams of the door of the chamber started to become colored – these were vivid neon-like colors. A very cool effect. I was just beginning to explore this further when unfortunately to my great surprise time was up – we were already done…

What other things do I think might be important for studies such as this one? I come back to the title of this post: I was not being facetious when I posed the original question. How does our brain activity vary with geographical location? What about effects from the season of the year? [The light levels outside can be vastly different in addition to temperatures – in Indiana it was winter when we did the study, here in Paris it is late now spring.] What about the cultural milieu one is in? [Fortunately, since I have been over here before, the environment is completely familiar, so at least there is a minimal effect of novelty here, but there may still be a cultural effect.] What differences in activity are there for measurements taking sitting upright versus lying down? What differences in brain activity occur after a 3-4 month period of time has passed? How does one’s emotional state change the data? What about the amount of caffeine consumed? What about one’s habitual diet? Same applies to blood sugar levels at time of measurement etc… What if someone has a cold & a fever versus when they are well? These are all questions that we do not have clear answers yet. Many future studies will have to be performed to get at these. And this is not something we can tackle with our little investigation – we are just trying to get a rough idea of reproducibility across different methods in different labs at this stage & trying to integrate datasets for future work together.

But here is the one question I wonder about the most: how has my brain changed since the time [a year ago] that I was here last? Clearly I am a year older, however, I have also had a very rich cultural experience when I was here last that would have changed me forever also [hopefully for the better]…