The style of a Friday night discourse at the Royal Institution was turned on its head during a recent lecture about Alzheimer’s.
Recently it has been hard to miss the news about the growing world population and the doom laden estimations that say it will rise to 9 billion by 2050. But a lesser thought of fact is the proportion of that population that will be elderly. Medicine is helping cure diseases and the outcome is a population that is living longer but suffering from more debilitating, age-related diseases. One such disease is Alzheimer’s, the subject of a lecture I attended at the Royal Institution back in March. Dr Simon Lovestone of King’s Health Partners was booked to talk about current treatments and tests on the horizon. However, I can’t say that my reason for attending was a purely altruistic worry about the future state of our health system and elderly care. Two years ago my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, after we found she’d been hoarding post in her shower since the 90’s, so I went along thinking about her treatment programme and future drugs for when perhaps another loved one falls ill to the same fate.
I was expecting the lecture to be much like any other Friday Night Discourse, the nominated expert stands at the front and the audience quietly listen and ask polite questions. But things did not go the way I expected; Dr Lovestone dispensed with tradition and started the lecture like the start of a play at the theatre, he set the scene and told a story. This style of communicating where the lecturer teaches through anecdotes, jokes and historical stories may be fairly usual at other venues but it was not what anyone was expecting here at the Royal Institution.
60,000 deaths a year are attributable to dementia and nearly everyone I ask seems to have a friend or a relative that has been affected by Alzheimer’s, leading me to assume that many people in the audience at the Royal Institution had a personal link to the disease. The wide reaching and indiscriminate nature of the disease makes it particularly scary and you could sense the fear in the audience as Dr Lovestone described the symptoms. And yet he lectured in such a way that it took the panic out of the subject and the audience.
A highlight of the lecture was something I expect the hall hadn’t seen the likes of since the 1800’s -the live dissection of a human brain. Dr Lovestone introduced a colleague from the UK Brain Bank who sliced one hemisphere of a brain so the audience could see the physical manifestations of the disease. This was such a shock to everyone in the audience that I heard the lady next to me whispering “this never happens at the Royal Institution” but whether the shock was good or bad I remember every detail of what he taught us. As he started slicing he explained that he didn’t know what he was going to find inside the brain and that we were “investigating together”. On being invited into his unique experiment everyone was keen to listen and take note.
The lecture continued in good spirits but about 15 minutes before the bell Dr Lovestone seemed to remember he was giving a science lecture and needed to inject some technicalities and jargon. Up until this point the details hadn’t been too stretching but then the mood changed, he sped off towards epigenetics at speed. This would have been fine had he explained it in his earlier style with dances and stories but perhaps he realised he was running out of time so he changed from the jovial man of the past 45 minutes into a serious lecturer teaching genetics to a standard he assumed we were all at. The looks of comprehension around the hall melted into confusion and frustration while we tried to keep up with his new pace. Despite this sudden change of heart however, this was one of the most entertaining and informative lectures I have attended and what makes this experience singular is that I remember most of what he explained to us, not just his methods. I went along hoping to understand more about what happened to my grandmother and perhaps to be reassured about my future and in this way Dr Lovestone succeeded and surpassed my expectations. Although this style of lecturing isn’t for the squeamish or perhaps suitable for every lecture at the Royal Institution it was a breath of fresh air and a welcome surprise.
Laura Templer is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London.