secret nerves

researching communication between body & brain

For more than 30 years, Ian researched the ways in which nerves communicate between the body and the brain. He has published over 100 scientific papers on these topics. His used sophisticated microscopy techniques, including electron microscopy and confocal laser microscopy, to see directly how different types of nerves connect up with each other, the spinal cord, and the various organs of the body. He also used microelectrodes to record the electrical behaviour of single nerve cells as they send messages via these connections.

See most of Ian’s scientific publications on PubMed here.

Autonomic Motor Pathways

nerves that control the activity of our internal organs

Autonomic motor pathways are the nerves that carry communications from brain and spinal cord to nearly all the internal organs, such as the heart, gastro-intestinal tract and urino-genital tract. Autonomic pathways include sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric nerves. The research that Ian and his colleagues around the world have done shows that old ideas of how these nerves are organised and work are far too simplistic. For example, the so-called ‘flight-or-fight’ response is only a small component of the behaviour of sympathetic nerves. In contrast, various sympathetic pathways are active even when you are quiet and relaxed, controlling your blood pressure, your temperature, and other aspects of your bodily metabolism.

Read a Scholarpedia article about these nerves written by Ian and Bill Blessing here.

Visceral Sensory Pathways

nerves that monitor the status of our internal organs

Nearly all of the internal organs, as well as skin, muscles and bones, are supplied by nerves that monitor their status in various ways. Many of these nerves are activated by tissue damage or inflammation. We generally perceive this activity as some type of pain, which helps us recognise that something is wrong. However, some such nerves are activated by common spices or herbs such as chilli, ginger and mint, generating sensations we usually find pleasurable.

The research of Ian, together with many other laboratories around the world, has identified different classes of these nerves that use different combinations of chemicals to send messages into the spinal cord. There is still much work to be done to understand how all these nerves work and how they give rise to the diverse types of pain we all experience from time to time.

Read Sometimes It Hurts, one of Ian’s poems about pain here.

The Neuroscience of Embodiment

a feeling for the body

How do we understand the feeling we have for our own body? Where does that feeling start and finish when we are using a familiar tool or playing a musical instrument, for example? Modern neuroscience is getting ever closer to answering these questions with the development of concepts such as ‘Motor Cognition’. Ian does not do primary research in this area, but he knows the field well, having taught about it for years…

Since 2007, Ian has been collaborating with artist, Catherine Truman, to explore the consequences of these ideas on the ways we learn anatomy and how we communicate the feelings for the body we have acquired throughout our lives. This formed the basis of their work in not absolute and The Microscope Project.  This work also deeply informed his collaborations with Garry Stewart and the Australian Dance Theatre in the development of Be Your Self and Proximity.

Read Phantom Limb, one of Ian’s poems about body sense here.

Read about Ian’s collaborations with Catherine Truman in the study of anatomy here.

Read a conversation between Ian and Garry Stewart here.

Music and the Brain

get in the groove, sing along…

Since the 1990s, neuroscientists have made enormous advances in understanding how the brain “does” music: which parts of the brain keep us in time and in tune, what happens as we learn the skills necessary to play an instrument, and so on. Ian combines his knowledge of neuroscience with his musical experience in his popular presentations about the neuroscience of music.

Sample some of Ian’s own music here.