June 30, 2022
Distinguished neuroscientist Sir Colin Blakemore was born on June 1, 1944. He died of motor neuron disease on June 27, 2022, aged 78.
Born in Stratford-upon-Avon on June 1, 1944, he was educated at King Henry VIII School in Coventry, then won a state scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a BA (Honours) very good) in medical sciences in 1965. and was promoted to a master’s degree in 1969. He obtained his doctoral degree in physiological optics at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, as a Harkness Fellow in 1968 From 1968 to 1979 he was a demonstrator and later a lecturer in physiology at the University of Cambridge and director of medical studies at Downing College. From 1976 to 1979 he was a holder of the Royal Society Locke Research Fellowship.
His list of leadership positions barely dropped from that point, from becoming the youngest to give one of the BBC’s Reith lectures at the age of 32, to becoming a professor at the University of Oxford at the age of 35. societies, the Medical Research Council, and the forerunners of many modern institutions, including the Royal Society of Biology, the British Science Association, and Understanding Animal Research.
Sir Colin’s research output was also predictably prolific. The crucial idea that Blakemore helped bring to neuroscience was that the brain changes as patterns of activity influence it. During the first months of life, its changes are particularly dynamic and its cells form billions of new connections. If you are blind at this crucial time, the vital connections between the eye and the brain are never made, and you will never see normally.
His research focused on vision, early brain development, and conditions such as stroke and Huntington’s disease. He was one of the first to show, in the late 1960s, that the visual cortex undergoes rapid adaptation just after birth, and to show that the process occurred in the fibers of neural cells.
The theory that the brain is plastic, changing and rearranging itself is now a mainstay of neuroscience – it’s how we understand learning and memory. At the time, however, it was controversial. Blakemore, as one of the scientists who discovered this great truth, provided another key piece of the puzzle: in those who have been blind since shortly after birth, the visual cortex becomes sensitive to input from other senses. , like touch. Blakemore then identified some of the genes involved in brain plasticity. “I think we will discover with horror that many of the most personal and sacred aspects of individuality are genetically determined,” he once said.
Thanks in large part to his experiments on animals, we are now able to treat conditions such as amblyopia or lazy eye, the most common form of childhood blindness, as well as to understand the need for surgery on the strabismus during the first weeks of life.
Although he has spent much of his career seeking a cure for forms of childhood blindness, he will nonetheless receive death threats from people who consider themselves “animal rights” activists. His “crime,” as these objectors saw it, was that his research involved scientific testing on cats and nonhuman primates.
For the previous two decades, dramatized reports of his methods had been released by campaign groups – including details of an experiment involving the blinding and sacrifice of more than 30 kittens. Then, in 1987, the sunday mirror published a series of falsified allegations against Blakemore, including doctored photographs of cats with stitches drawn on their eyelids.
Blakemore went out to fight, ignoring the advice of his peers. “I replied to every letter”, he later recalled, “I got a decision from the Press Council against the sunday mirror. I was so outraged by the lies and insults against my name. The ensuing media circus had the effect of boosting his career, and within a year he was presenting his own television show – a documentary series on the brain called The mental machine. His natural, airy delivery and knack for elucidating complex has made him an unofficial spokesperson for his field.
But with each bullish response and reaffirmation of his views, Blakemore became more of a hate figure to extremist hate groups who began to target him personally.
In 1997, his wife, Andrée, watched terrified through video monitors as a crowd of 300 balaclava-clad activists tried to break down his front door with a brick. On another occasion, her daughters opened a package containing a ring of HIV-infected needles swathing half a kilo of explosive. No one was ever seriously injured, but the harassment campaign gave his children nightmares and drove his wife to attempt suicide. At one point, while pregnant, she picked up the phone to be told, “I hope your baby was born blind.”
Leading the crowd and always looking for accuracy, a woman named Cynthia O’Neill claimed that Blakemore invented thalidomide (he would have been 8 years old), had a pharmaceutical company-funded swimming pool in his back garden and kept the body of her cat in her refrigerator.
Yet Blakemore never gave in. He created the Boyd Group to try to facilitate dialogue between scientists and activists opposed to their life-saving work. He also spontaneously, live on the radio, threatened to resign as CEO of the Medical Research Council if the British government did not offer its unequivocal support for animal research. It had been revealed to him by the host of Britain’s leading political radio show that he had repeatedly been passed over for a peerage because of his support of animals in research and he was quick to judge. Later that day, a government spokesman announced the government’s unwavering support for animal research, despite a government minister’s desire to sack him, and Blakemore’s time at the MRC saw both his reinforced independence and its reinforced coffers.
To the disbelief of his detractors, he was a dedicated cat owner and spoke out against fox hunting and animal testing for cosmetics or household detergents. “I think animal testing is bad,” he once told a reporter. “If it wasn’t necessary, I would put up the flags. I don’t know a single scientist who does it for fun, unlike hunters. . . or leather wearers,” he added, staring pointedly at his interviewer’s shoes.
He was an early proponent of openness in animal research and became the first recipient of a UAR Openness Award in 2014, at which he spoke about his experiences.
During the BSE crisis, he called for beef to be banned, advising parents to stick to chicken (“safer than warm-blooded animals with hooves”), and he also advocated for legalization cannabis. A humanist, he signed a letter with other academics calling on the government to reconsider its support for increasing the number of religious schools.
Above all, Sir Colin Blakemore was a charming, brilliant, friendly, talented, conscientious and round person. He loved music and considered becoming an artist in his youth. Brave and brilliant, a series of duodenal ulcers he suffered as a teenager had been so bad he nearly bled to death, and he later said it affected his outlook on life. “It gave me an early indication of mortality. I always had the feeling that I wasn’t going to live very long,” he said. “Hence the attitude that life should be experienced as fully as possible.”