Alex Wade is a specialist in human brain imaging and was one of a team of scientists who made a close study of Mike May, a successful businessman and athlete who had been blinded at the age of three, but whose sight had been restored at the age of 50 using novel transplant techniques.
Alex found that when Mike was asked to perceive an object in three dimensions from different angles, or distinguish faces from other objects, the parts of Mike’s brain responsible for those bits stayed dark; there simply was no activity. May's eyesight was fine. It was parts of his brain that were no longer working.
But why these parts? The question fascinated Alex and his colleagues. They spent months with Mike in the laboratory before coming to a remarkable answer: the areas of the brain responsible for processing colour and motion and for identifying two-dimensional shapes are more primitive, more hardwired into human evolution. They are formed very early and can survive nonuse. Whereas, the parts of the brain responsible for spatial perception, judging faces, determining gender, and identifying common objects in three dimensions, reside in areas that cannot survive years of darkness.
Such discoveries require a multidisciplinary approach to investigation – and Alex is multidisciplinary through and through. He studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge before taking a PhD in Neuroscience at University College London. He then moved to Stanford University to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in human brain imaging specializing in the neural computations underlying our perception of colour. It was while he was a Principle Investigator at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco that he met Mike May. Alex came to York in 2011 and is passionate about the natural sciences and the power of collaboration.