The History of X

Written by Sarah de Launey, edited by Nicola Simcock

Charles pickney


“The nature of the communication will evince the necessity of secrecy; and we have promised Messrs. X. and Y. that their names shall, in no event, be made public

A secret message shrouded in mystery, this communication from Charles Pinckney in 1797 is the first recorded use of X outside mathematics.


From science to cinema, all over the world, X is used to represent the unknown. So ubiquitous, it’s easy to imagine that this has always been the case. At May’s SciBar Dr David Stewart, researcher in Pure Mathematics at Newcastle University, told the story of mathematical notation and explains how enigmatic, unassuming X emerged as champion of the unknown.

Like gin and tonic, mathematics and notation are a natural duo. However, just like gin and tonic, this is a relatively recent pairing. Early mathematics, recorded on Babylonian tablets dating back to 1700BC, describe calculations as a narrative without any specific mathematical symbols. These texts are conversational and at times dramatic, one speaker giving instructions to a second who then recounts the result to the reader. While a little time consuming, this engaging method was ideal for solving geometric problems or identifying patterns, such as predicting eclipses.


Drawing from Babylonian knowledge and traditions, the ancient Greeks expanded the field of mathematics and created many of the foundational texts we use today. Among the great scholars of this period, Pythagoras stands out as the epitome of a mad genius. He developed the Pythagorean theorem but refused to urinate towards the Sun; popularised the idea of mathematical proof but refused to pass a donkey in the street. Unlike the Babylonians and previous mathematicians, Pythagoras didn’t see mathematics as a simple means to solving practical problems, but as a discipline in its own right. He dedicated much of his time to exploring relationships between numbers ─ such as perfect and prime numbers ─ laying the foundations for modern number theory.

While the ancient Greeks may not have introduced our X, or in fact any consistent form of notation, they did develop many mathematical principles still used today. Euclid’s Elements of Geometry (the most successful textbook of all time) published over 2000 years ago, is still used in studies of geometry and number theory today.

At the turn of the common Era, it was not just the Greeks who had advanced their understanding of mathematics. Indian mathematicians and scholars, who were already well versed in Euclidean equations, made the most significant contribution to the discipline. Ever.

They invented nothing.

The discovery of zero was an incredible breakthrough. Its existence meant that calculations no longer needed lengthy explanation through text and paved the way for modern algebra, algorithms, and calculus. Almost 800 years after its first recorded use, the Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi brought the concept of zero, as well as minus numbers and the Arabic numerals, to Europe. With these new tools for abstraction, mathematics could finally be used to explore the unknown.

But what do we mean by the unknown? Donald Rumsfeld explains:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Rather than using common speech to describe these concepts, like the Babylonians, mathematics turned to symbolic notation as an efficient way of working with different types of unknowns.

With the arrival of the printing press in the 15th century there was an explosion of mathematical publications, each with their own system of notation. Luca Pacioli’s Summa de arithmetica, geometria, de proportioni et de proportionalita, for example, used Latin letters in alphabetical order as a way of identifying variables. Sadly, these notational proofs were considered too crude to accompany the main text and were relegated to the annex.

With no dominant form that stood out from the rest, the many notational systems coexisted to the end of the 16th century. In an attempt to expand and standardise notation, French mathematician Francois Viète tried to introduce a new system by which vowels would represent unknown unknowns and consonants as known unknowns. However, the absence of any regulatory body for mathematical notation meant that the preferential adoption of one system depended on the popularity of its author. Despite its importance for modern algebra, Viète’s book Opera Mathematica was not popular enough to catalyse standardisation.

Le Livre Premier de La Géométrie de Descartes

Not until 1637 was X as we know it today first published, in René Descartes’ hugely popular La Géométrie (extract above). While according to the author the book “picked up where Viète left off”, Descartes opted for a different system of notation: X, Y and Z to represent unknown unknowns and A, B and C for known unknowns. But the question remains, why X? Could it have Christian connotations? As Descartes was famously devout. Could it be its form? Two arrow heads pointing to the answer. Or is there something intrinsically mysterious about X? Two infinitely long lines, meeting at one point, above the hidden treasure.

As Dr Stewart reminded us ─ this remains unknown.

Further reading

A History of Mathematical Notations, Florian Cajori

Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra Paperback – John Derbyshire

A History of Algebra From al-Khwārizmī to Emmy Noether – Waerden, Bartel L. van der



A Gynaecologist ‘in Space’

Written by Lucy Eland and edited by Adam Curry and Nicola Simcock


How does space travel affect the human body? Is this different for male and female astronauts? What do female astronauts do about their menstrual cycle in space?

These are just some of the fascinating questions answered by “Space Gynaecologist” Dr Varsha Jain in April’s SciBar. Dr Jain is a registrar in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in London, has a Masters in Space Physiology and Health, and has done research at NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, on the effects of space travel on the female body.


In 1963 the first female astronaut went to space and 20 years later, the second. However, only relatively recently (2013) did NASA select its first a gender balanced astronaut team. In total only 59 women have been to space (out of approximately 561) which has resulted in a limited sample size for a “Space Gynaecologist” to study!

Space is an extreme environment, combining extremes of temperature, low gravity, isolation, nutritional limitations, radiation exposure and of course, distance from aid in the event of a medical emergency! These extremes dictate the rigorous astronaut selection procedure, to pick the healthiest and best-suited candidates for extensive training. Even so, the impacts of space travel on the human body are clear from the vast data sets continuingly collected on the astronauts. Symptoms like motion sickness, isolated hearing loss, visual impairment, immune responses and decreased bone and muscle mass are apparent in many astronauts. Interestingly, some of the symptoms differ between males and females.  Female astronauts tend to experience more space motion sickness, but less hearing loss and stronger immune responses than their male counterparts, the reasons for which we don’t yet understand. So potentially, Man-flu could be a real problem in space!

Dr Jain emphasised that NASA invests a lot of time studying the physiological data to make space flight as safe as possible and to maintain astronaut health.  Continual improvements are made to operational procedures, such as ensuring astronauts complete at least 90 minutes of exercise per day ─ to combat bone density and muscle loss ─ and limiting the total number of days that women can spend in space ─ as they are more prone to cancers caused by radiation than their male counterparts.


Following a brief discussion of space toilets, Dr Jain enlightened us about the menstruation choices female astronauts make in space.  Space toilets require solid and liquid waste to be passed separately, so that the liquid can be treated and recycled. Remember, everything needs to be used efficiently in space!  Any blood in the liquid means that it has to be treated as a solid and the water cannot be recycled. As a consequence, if a female astronaut chooses to bleed in space the water available for recycling is lower, increasing the amount of water needed to be taken on the mission.

There are options for female astronauts to suppress their periods, if they choose, by using hormone-containing contraceptives continually (not recommended or licenced for use in this way). Dr Jain’s research at NASA looked at how different options for period suppression could be used, including coils, pills and implants. She looked at all the data available on female astronauts and whether there is any evidence that physiology is affected by contraception choice. The work particularly focused on whether there is a higher risk of blood clots based on these choices, particularly using the pill.

During the question and answer session, the fascinated audience asked a huge range of questions, from what a baby conceived and born in space would look like? (on account of the many wonderful men and women needed to make up a labour and delivery team, Varsha strongly discouraged trying to deliver a baby in space!). To how small sample sizes affect the study of space gynaecology (small sample sizes and unfortunately small funding opportunities) and whether people wanting to go on the commercial space flights of the future would require health and reproductive status screening before flight?

While still a relatively new topic, it’s hard to deny that space gynaecology is fascinating! We hope that with the help of experts like Dr Varsha Jain (and the rapidly approaching concept of life on Mars!) we’ll be hearing much more about it in the future!


*Please note: for the purpose of this article we use the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ in reference to biological males and females.

Also, the contents of this article are based on the presentation, work, and opinions of Dr Varsha Jain and are not endorsed by NASA. (….but if they would like to endorse our blog that would be pretty cool!)

See you next time at our SciBar on Wednesday 15th May to learn about ‘A brief history of ‘X’: algebra and mathematical notation’ from Dr David Stewart, Lecturer in Pure Mathematics, Newcastle University.


Towards slightly less dumb cities: big data, the Internet of Things and urban monitoring

Written by Lucy Eland, Edited by Adam Curry

What is a ‘smart city’, and can we make our cities less dumb?

These were questions posed by Phil James, the director of the Newcastle Urban Observatory, at SciBar on the 20th March. He gave a passionate talk about how we can collect and use data to make more educated decisions on running our cities.


The power of the ‘internet of things’ (the interconnection of computing devices embedded in everyday objects) can be harnessed to provide us with data on how cities are operating. Monitoring equipment and sensors, linked up wirelessly to the internet, can provide accurate measurements of many variables, ranging from air pollution to pedestrian numbers on a street. The Urban Observatory to date has collected a Newcastle data set with an astonishing one billion observations. Every minute, 4000 new observations are recorded from 3600 data streams, measuring 64 different variables (such as airborne particulate matter, wind speed and vehicle numbers).

So, how can we be sure we’re measuring the ‘right’ variables, and how can we use this data to improve our cities? The main example Phil talked about was air pollution. The EU and DEFRA standards mean that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is the main gas requiring monitoring and reduction. Unfortunately, there’s much more to air pollution than that, with other gases and environmental factors ─ including wind and sunlight ─ having a drastic impact on readings. Sensors must be calibrated and monitored regularly and even with careful observations, anomalies in the data can be hard to spot.

As for whether we are measuring the correct variables, Phil suggested additional factors that may improve monitoring, such as particulate matter (the sum of solid and liquid particles in the air that may be hazardous). Tests have shown particulate matter could have worse health effects than NO2 and so our current focus may indeed be on the wrong problem. Phil highlighted that a more holistic, and sustainable approach to dealing with air pollution would be beneficial, particularly in light of scientific evidence.

This led Phil to suggest using Newcastle city as a ‘lab’, to gather evidence for decision making on things like infrastructure and congestion, amongst others. Hopefully an extensive data set could provide possible solutions to environmental, economic and social problems. An additional factor is the need to gather evidence to confirm whether the intended outcome of a project has been achieved. Surprisingly, this is not routine, especially not on a city-wide scale. Such a complex data collection project is challenging and can have subsequent drawbacks, for example solving an air pollution problem in one area may just move it to a neighbouring location.

All of the data collected by Newcastle’s Urban Observatory is freely available on the web, allowing open use by scientists, planners and communities. The ultimate hope for this data is that it can be accurately used to make more informed city-based decisions. You can see Phil James’ work at and .

Wildlife Trafficking: Causes and Consequences

Words by Calum Kirk, edited by Adam Curry

Tonight’s SciBar was a dive into the murky and sadly, all too common, world of wildlife trafficking, expertly guided by Tanya Wyatt, Professor of Criminology at Northumbria University. On the 19th of February, Professor Wyatt gave us an overview of the breadth of wildlife trafficking, ranging from the causes for participation, through to the environmental consequences. The audience soon discovered that this is a complex topic with no single cause or solution, but one that requires dedicated research.

Professor Wyatt started by explaining that “wildlife trafficking” ─ the illegal trading of plants and animals ─ is a huge obstacle, and currently, one of the world’s biggest challenges. The wildlife trafficking industry is worth upwards of £20 billion per annum and is the fourth largest criminal activity in the world. Since the issue spans borders, tackling it requires inter-government cooperation. Thankfully, there are a plethora of regulations and agreements in place which do just this. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (or CITES for short, which can be found over at was established in the 1970s and has the potential to combat the illegal trade of wildlife. However, despite this and the large scale of the problem, addressing wildlife trafficking is still a low priority for many governments.

The concept of wildlife trafficking is intriguing. What gives people the desire to smuggle animals and plants across hundreds of miles, or pay for the privilege? Your first thought might be economics; with people seeing an exploitable resource and trying to make a living from it. But often the answer is not so simple. In many instances’ traffickers are fulfilling a demand from other sections of society. In some cases, rich clients are willing to pay to own an exotic pet or merely display a trophy.

Cultural reasons for trafficking also extend to the trade in traditional medicines, with “cures” being sold for a multitude of reasons. For example, current projections estimate that the black rhino will be extinct 2050, simply because their horns are used as a treatment for arthritis as well as a purported hangover cure.

While some instances of trafficking are relatively small scale, there are also examples of organised crime operations such as the sale of ivory. Professor Wyatt outlined one of her own experiences through her research of Russian black markets and the trade of live falcons. She thankfully spared us too many upsetting details but did elaborate on the cruel methods which involve catching the falcons, drugging them (or worse!) and putting them in tubes for transportation.

While the consequences of trafficking are as numerous as their causes, Professor Wyatt focussed on three main areas; loss of biodiversity, invasive species and disease transmission. The term ‘biodiversity’ refers simply to the number of different species in an ecosystem. However, the removal of species via trafficking not only impacts the target species but it also has a knock-on effect to the other species in that ecosystem. Professor Wyatt used the example of insect-eating pangolins. They’re the single most trafficked animal in the world, and the loss of pangolins would likely lead to a rise in insect numbers. An increase in insects would have untold effects on the environment and agriculture, directly impacting human activities.

Similarly, the introduction of foreign or invasive species can be just as disruptive. The accidental release of exotic pets from the illegal pet trade is one way that new species can enter an ecosystem. In several cases, these species have managed to outcompete native inhabitants. From Burmese pythons escaping into the Florida everglades, to parakeets into the south of Britain. Escape of these animals into the surrounding environment often disrupts the unprepared ecosystems.

Changes to an ecosystem from new animals can be surprisingly varied. To highlight this, Professor Wyatt used the example of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park (USA). After several decades of absence, the returned wolves hunted such a significant proportion of the deer population that consequently, more trees grew. This increased abundance of trees, led to more beavers building dams, which in turn changed the course of some rivers ─ a substantial impact!  While a change in species may not always be so dramatic, this example certainly highlights the unknown consequences different species may have on an ecosystem.

Arguably, the ecological consequences of biodiversity loss and invasive species are easy to ignore due to minimal human impact. However, trafficked wildlife may also bring diseases and parasites, which can have a direct effect on human health. Animals or animal parts trafficked for food can lead to outbreaks of disease, just like a SARS outbreak in Toronto (2003), which was traced back to consumption of a civet cat.

Despite the challenges, there is hope. Britain, amongst others, is very involved in the conversation around trafficking. London hosted the International Illegal Wildlife Trade conference and is further helping to ban traded items. In the last few years, for example, all ivory items are now banned, not just their import. Organisations combating wildlife trafficking include: United for Wildlife ( and TRAFFIC []. If you want to do more to support the effort to end wildlife trafficking, then supporting these organisations are an excellent way to start.

Vocal signals of friendliness and trust

Words by Lucy Eland, Edited by Nicola Simcock and Rosadelle Tirados

Does your accent or the sound of your voice make you seem more trustworthy?

Dr Laurence White, Senior Lecturer in Speech and Language Sciences at Newcastle University presented his fascinating research on this topic at January’s SciBar. In nature, some signals are considered ‘honest’ and can be trusted. For example, a peacock with an elaborate tail signals his fitness to potential mates and rivals. Growing a large tail not only requires a lot of energy but additionally, it is a burden that makes him an easy target for predators and yet he has survived. This tail ─ as a fitness measure ─ is honest. Similarly trustworthy, though for different reasons, are the alarm calls of meerkats. Meerkats exist in close family groups and genetically, their interests lie in preserving this group. Therefore, any alarm call to signal danger to the group, despite attracting unwanted attention, is usually an honest one.

When we think about human communication where dishonest signalling and lies are rife, things become much more complex. Laurence’s work looks at the sounds of speech and whether accents and tone of voice influence how trustworthy we are perceived. Accents could be seen as a broadly honest signal. While not impossible, it is difficult to pass yourself off convincingly as having a different accent, so how we speak to some extent reflects our geographical and social upbringing.


Interestingly, some informal surveys have shown that people are perceived to be more or less trustworthy depending on their accent. For example, in one such survey, received pronunciation, RP (roughly “Queen’s English”) and rural accents like Devon came out on top, with big city accents such as the Liverpudlian (“Scouse”) accent being less trusted. Interestingly, however, the Geordie accent is perceived as trustworthy and friendly, which could account for the many call centres based in and around the city.

While some accents may be considered more trustworthy than others in surveys, is this likely to affect people’s behaviours towards each other in real life, even when we have clear independent evidence of trustworthiness? After all, our accent is largely an accident of birth and upbringing and should provide little or no information about our true character.

To investigate, volunteer participants were asked to play a game with an undisclosed (computer simulated) partner. On each of 20 rounds, the participant was given and asked to invest between £0 and £8. With each round the partner received three times the investment and returned some fraction of that to the participant, which could be more or less than their initial investment. Unbeknownst to the participant, the partners were programmed to be mean (equating to a bad overall return on the volunteer’s investment), or generous (a good investment return), although the exact level of return varied from round to round. The amount the participant invests is taken as a measure of their trust in their partner. Indeed, it only takes a few rounds for the participants’ investment to dramatically change according their partners’ overall mean or generous behaviour.

The key point in this experiment was, however, whether the accent of the partner affects the level of investment, which ought to be determined purely by the monetary evidence of their meanness or generosity. Before each investment round, participants heard a prompt from their computer partner: this was simply a neutral encouragement to continue investing, such as “The goal of the game is to earn as much money as possible.” Crucially, the accent in which these prompts were spoken varied between games. In line with the informal surveys, partners with RP and Devon accents got higher initial investments than Birmingham and Cockney for the first few rounds, regardless of whether the partners were ‘mean’ or generous’. Amazingly, the partners with the RP accent continued to attract a small but significantly greater amount of investment throughout the experiment, with investment in other accents also varying.

Similar experiments have since been carried out that further demonstrate the accent effect: even when we have strong (monetary) evidence about someone’s level of trustworthiness, their accent – a largely arbitrary feature – still affects our perception. A potential reason for this finding is the link between accents and the location in which they originate. In general, city dwellers are considered less trustworthy than those from the country. As the RP accent has no associated geography, this may limit such biases, with accent familiarity and social status potentially also playing a role.

Later in the talk, the discussion expanded to further research about how other aspects of your voice, such as pitch, speed and rhythm also impact how you are subconsciously judged. In versions of the above experiment, higher pitched voices tended to be considered more trustworthy. However, the effect did not last throughout the whole experiment, as pitch ─ as a signal ─ may not be considered ‘honest’ (it’s easy to fake). Slowing speech also helps to build trust, being thought to indicate more consideration in speakers, that is, willingness to take the extra time to clearly express their words to listeners.

Despite the audience now being acutely aware of their own accents, questions were plentiful, and a significant point was raised as to whether the accent of the participants impacted the results of the experiments. Although this was not controlled for in the study, Laurence did point out that generally people are more trusting of familiar accents. There was also discussion about whether musicians emphasise their accents to make their music more authentic, trustworthy and friendly. Something that fans of the Arctic Monkeys, The Streets or Maximo Park will no doubt be familiar!

Cystic Fibrosis: Bugs, Drugs and Lung Transplantation

Written by Rosadelle Tirados, edited by Lucy Eland

For our final SciBar of the year, Advanced Biomedical Scientist Audrey Perry, from the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, shared with us some fascinating insights into cystic fibrosis (CF) and its current therapies. This genetic condition brings about a build-up of sticky mucus in the lungs and pancreas and difficulty in breathing which, along with frequent lung infections, can be very challenging for a CF patient. With over 10,000 people affected in the UK, is there hope for a more effective management of this condition?

It has been found that mutations in the Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator (CFTR) gene can wreak havoc on the normal transport of epithelial fluid in our lungs, pancreas and other organs. There are six classes of mutations affecting the CFTR gene and it is important to recognise which one a patient has in order to select the most suitable therapy. CF manifests in many different ways across the whole body including heart disease, hypertension, bronchitis and pneumonia. Unlike in normal lungs, mucus in the CF lung is very thick, persistent and difficult to remove. Detecting the faulty gene early is therefore critical, so treatments can be started as soon as possible. Since 2007, all new-borns in the UK have been screened, using a genetic ‘heel prick’ test.

Treatments for CF include inhaled drugs that help to clear the airways, antibiotics for lung infections, physiotherapy and nutritional feeding among others. Kalydeco (Ivacaftor) is the first precision medicine for CF that is available in the NHS. It is a ‘personalised’ medicine, specifically targeted to CF patients with a gating mutation such as G551D and allows for the normal balance of salt and water in the cells in the lungs. Orkambi (Ivacaftor/Lumacaftor) is another precision combination therapy that is used to help get more proteins in the surface of cells and to maintain the normal flow of salt and water in the lungs – although at the moment it is not available in the NHS. With ongoing research into other drugs and therapies, who knows what new drugs will be introduced in the near future. Watch this space!

For those who are unable to get any benefits from these drugs, a double lung transplant is another option. It is not to be taken lightly, however, as specific criteria (such as very poor lung function and high burden of care) must be met by those considering undergoing this procedure. Tests must also be performed to ensure you do not have Burkholderia cenocepacia or Mycobacterium abscessus complex in your lungs. Having these bugs in your lungs before the transplant may contribute to the failure of the transplant and death due to infection. These bugs can remain in the throat or chest cavity and infect the new transplanted lung, which is a huge problem when the patient’s immune system is already compromised by the transplant. Freeman Hospital survival rates are 84% at 1 year post transplant, 70% at 3 years, 60% at 5 years and 53% at 10 years, which is relatively high, but obviously worth improvement!

Is it just the advances in lab testing and therapies that contribute to the safe management of this condition? Of course not! We have specialist CF teams to thank for their hard work, in addition to the expert microbiologists who tailor specific treatments to the patient, to the biomedical scientists who test patient samples, nurses, social workers and other healthcare professionals that deliver care at the bedside. It truly is a team effort and just as important is the commitment and compliance of the patient to their therapy.

CF is a life-limiting inherited disease and there is currently no cure, however, with advances in testing and personalised medicine, there are high hopes for a better life expectancy and ultimately a world without CF.

For more information on CF and lung transplantation, please visit:,-consensus-documents,-and-standards-sta

Do you think about how you walk with every step?

Written by Lucy Eland, edited by Nicola Simcock

On the 21st of November SciBar welcomed Ríona McArdle from the Brain and Movement Research group at Newcastle University, who asked us this very question. We have all seen videos of people walking into things while texting, which, in addition to providing comedic relief, shows that walking becomes more difficult when our brain is distracted. This is because walking is a complex task. Although we rarely notice it, walking requires lots of brain power to coordinate movement with visual information about where we are heading. As we get older our brains shrink and so our walking tends to slow down. For patients with dementia, both brain shrinkage and slow walking becomes even more pronounced.

There are two major types of dementia: Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy body disease. While most people have heard of Alzheimer’s, the less recognised Lewy body disease has a slightly different set of symptoms, including hallucinations and movement problems. Ríona, a passionate neuropsychologist, explained how this link ─ between physical movement and dementia ─ has the potential to make dementia diagnosis cheaper, quicker and easier. One goal of her work is to assess whether you can tell the difference between people with and without dementia, by looking at the way they walk. Additionally, as differentiating between these two dementia subtypes can be tricky, Ríona hopes that this method might prove to be a useful addition in the diagnostic toolkit. This second goal is critical, as treating patients who have Lewy body disease with Alzheimer’s medication may actually make them worse.

So how did she test walking in relation to dementia? Ríona’s study recruited patients with both Lewy body disease and Alzheimer’s, along with healthy controls of the same age and then she watched them walk. To help her do this she had a lab full of gadgets and movement sensors, to detect things like speed, symmetry, variability, rhythm and postural control of gait. In fact, the one of the systems used to capture gait metrics in Ríona’s study (the Vicon Motion Capture analysis system) was also used by Benedict Cumberbatch while playing Smaug in The Hobbit film, adding a touch of showbiz to the whole affair!

The outcome of the walking trials offer some good news, with the dementia vs. non-dementia groups appearing to walk differently. Dementia patients demonstrate more variable step lengths, generally shorter strides and less symmetry between the two sides of their body when walking. With Lewy body disease there was also significantly more asymmetry, probably reflecting the way the brain degenerates unevenly during the course of the disease.

One valid flaw that Ríona drew our attention to was how lab walking is a bit different to normal walking, with many patients trying to ‘do their best’ when their walking is measured and they’re conscious of being observed. To solve this problem Ríona told us how she looked for ways to monitor patients in their natural environments.  This gives researchers more information on how much people walk on a day to day basis and whether they vary the length, location and time of their walks. This work included strapping a fancy monitor, about the size of a large watch face, to the subjects back to record their movement. Ríona could then assess walking style without influencing the patients and additionally, follow-up about any unusual activity (such as the patient who was clocking up an impressive 300+ minutes of walking a day, who owned 2 large dogs in need of much exercise!)

Ríona explained that while the results look promising, a larger study with more participants is needed before the research can be used to help diagnose patients. The need for a large study number was highlighted when the intrigued audience raised questions about how leg and foot injuries may influence walking results. Riona assured us that with enough participants any influence of ‘unique walking styles’ or unrelated walking-problems, should not significantly affect the study outcome.

Ríona left the SciBar audience feeling pleasantly optimistic as she spoke of her hope of seeing a day when a dementia diagnosis is not so feared, because of the knowledge we’ve gained, improvements in the diagnostic process and effective treatment options. That day may arrive sooner than we think if novel research such as this continues to bring useful new insights to the conditions facing today’s society.

If you are interested in getting involved in Ríona’s labs latest research, please go to to find out more.

We look forward to seeing you at the next SciBar event on Wednesday 12th of December where we will hear Audrey Perry’s talk ‘Cystic fibrosis and lung transplantation: bugs, drugs and new therapies’