Alison Cooper

Alison Cooper

Alison Cooper is a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham, where she teaches neuroscience and pharmacology.

Location University of Birmingham


  • Yes, that's right. there are many examples, but one which has a big impact on prescribing in many parts of the world relates to mediation used to lower blood pressure. For reasons that are not well understood, those with African/Caribbean ancestry tend to respond differently to those of caucasian ancestry.

  • This activity has particular relevance in the current pandemic. Recent data has suggested that the drug dexamethasone has a positive impact on the most ill patients. This drug has been used for decades, is off patent and therefore very cheap. You may want to consider the implications of this finding as compared to identifying and testing a new drug.

  • The financial aspects of drug development are complex and, inevitably where money is involved it seems, can reveal the unpleasant side to business activity

  • There is evidence that the interaction of the drug and receptor can result in change to the receptor - something called induced fit. However, undesirable side effects relating to medicinal drug action are most commonly due to the drug interacting with receptors on cells/parts of the body where the drug action is not needed or where the drug has too great an...

  • ask away

  • And here is the core point Ian - there isn't one single accepted definition so a description of what we mean by drug is important when communicating with others.

  • A good set of diverse drugs with diverse purposes!

  • That's right - it depends on whether we are thinking of "drug" specifically to mean drugs that humans might take recreationally and potentially abuse or whether we consider the definition to extend to include medicinal substances.

  • A good point Rachel. However, psychological effects are underpinned by changes in the way the neurons of the brain function and these are physiological effects.

  • The meaning of words can show differences according to the culture in which they are used. We have a diverse range of participants on the course so you may find that your definition varies from those given by others

  • This is a good point. The term "drug" can be applied both to a medicine but also a substance that might be abused and that causes harm such as heroin.

  • Yes, that's right. Many potential drugs start down the path to full development and use in humans but many fail at the various hurdles so the cost of these failures has to be recouped via drugs that do make it all the way to be prescribed.

  • Hello all,
    I see that some of you are already busily working your way through the course materials. I'll drop in and keep an eye on your comments when I can but do remember that your fellow learners are a great source of support and information too.

  • @CatherinePolidano
    Interesting questions!
    1. there are many groups of dopamine=producing neurones in the brain. See here for a diagram: ones that are most closely linked with PD are those that form the nigrostriatal pathway. The ones most closely associated with daopmine release during...

  • Thanks for sharing your father's experience - it helps illustrate the point that symptoms are diverse and different people have different sets of symptoms. A subset of people do not have tremor and the reason for this remains unclear. However, tremor is generally the symptom that L-dopa is least good at treating, which matches your father's expereince.

  • Dear Gaurav,
    I'm not sure what you mean by neuron production - there are no new neurones produced in this area of the adult brain as far as we know. This is unfortunate as the ability to produce new neurons here might help counteract any neurodegeneration.
    The other structures are there purely for orientation for anyone wanting to look into the anatomy of...

  • Dear Catherine, this "slice" is an accurate representation of the brain so hasn't had to be squashed to make a 2D picture. If yuo want to see where the midbrain is, try here:

  • Dear Gaurav, I'm sorry if the course did not meet your expectations. I am glad that it stimulated you to research for yourself, building on the platform I provide - that was my intended model as different people want different outcomes for the course and also different people prefer different modalities for learning. Unfortunately many activities cannot be...

  • Thanks for your comment. I set out to design the course that way as participants are diverse in knowledge and interest so I am really pleased to hear that this has worked for you.

  • I can only agree - your brain is a dynamic system it is changing at the microscopic scale throughout life and in response to your expereinces. So, the more you use it the more connections between neurons you have.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience - what this illustrates is that what works for one person might not work for another and that a degree of trial and error might be needed to get medications right - a valuable piece of knowledge for anyone who might be in the middle of changing their medication

  • This made me smile! Yes, the more we find out about the brain, the more we realise we don't know....!

  • Some great sources here - the involvement of the ENS is a major focus of research

  • @IanCampbell for psychosis the evidence suggests it is more likely due to the action of the drug treatments than part of the pathology. See some evidence for that here:

  • You are correct that PD seems to be associated with changes in mental health too and these seem to be more than reactive to a change in health since, for example, the prevalence of depression in those with PD is greater than it is in those with arthritis

  • Perhaps a surprise - but Drosophila, the tiny flies used in a lot of genetic research, share many of the proteins involved in neural activity with humans so they make good models for trying to understand basic processes. There's more on this here:

  • An excellent summary. Your statement that drugs don't slow the development but are aimed at reducing the impact of the symptoms is an important point. Consequently there is a lot of work trying to find something that will stop the progression or even prevent neurodegeneration in the first place.

  • @finnfinn We will look at the genetic versus non-genetic elements in the course. For some people there is a clear genetic link and, as you say Finn, this is most closely associated with a younger onset. However, for many people there isn't a link and you may hear the term "idiopathic" to describe their situation. This is just a technical word for "unknown...

  • the non-motor features are covered in week 3 activities - hopefully you'll get your questions answered!

  • can you explain how you came to this conclusion?

  • Hello everyone!
    I see many of you are already busily posting your thoughts and, in particular, it is really helpful for al participants to hear others impressions both of PD but also the course. It is challenging to put a course together for an audience you don't know - you will have such varied knowledge and interests but I hope you can all find something...

  • Pretty good summary Mike. The important bit here is that we are realizing that it is not just dopamine in one pathway that seems to be changed in PD. This has the potential to mean that some of the currently less-well covered symptoms might be treatable with additional drugs or other interventions.

  • Hi Marion - please do ask if there are particular points that you need guidance with. Also, I run a "basics of the brain" MOOC through Futurelearn and you might find that the core concepts we cover there are helpful to you.

  • Hello everyone - good to see so many of you here and busy already! I can also see that we have people with various experiences of PD joining - this real experience is so very valuable in helping the participants get the most out of this course, so thank you for being so open and sharing your own experiences. I will be dropping in and taking a look at your...

  • Not far off. The way that the electrical signals (action potentials) are generated and propagated down the axon relies on the movement of ions in and out of the axon. There is some leakage along the axon which means that, without myelination, the electrical signal would slowly decay the further away from the site of initial generation (at the cell body) you...

  • Some of you have mentioned the periaqueductal grey - this is a region found in the midbrain part of the brainstem which is the evolutionarily older parts of the brain. It seems to be involved in a lot of functions including basic survival processes, how individuals respond to different forms of threat, modulating pain responses, and a variety of other...

  • There is evidence that bringing information together at one point in time helps to encode it in the brain and that retrieving that information is easier when those conditions are reproduced. Perhaps the reason why smelling a particular perfume instantly reminds you of a particular person. We can see some evidence for how this might work at the level of...

  • I like your description that the brain is "a web of connections". Interestingly many of the recently built supercomputers are being built with this kind of connectivity rather than more traditional arrangements that are still found in domestic computers. For example, see this one:

  • and then continue that process through "the next cell"

  • Lots of interesting points being made here - as you are identifying there is no simple answer. if it is only about detecting sensory information, would that mean that the thermostat on your cooker is conscious?!

  • Alison Cooper replied to [Learner left FutureLearn]

    You are all right to some extent. Many drugs act as keys to the lock (receptor) and this either mimics the action of the normal key or prevents the normal key from working - these are scientifically named agonists and antagonists respectively. However, there is some evidence that drugs can act to modify the normal working of the natural agonist, so you are not...

  • If you are wondering what the myelin looks like, the image below is of a peripheral neuron that has a myelin sheath wrapped around it. In the periphery this job is done by glia known as schwann cells, in the brian the job is done by oligodendrocytes

  • Yes - the key point being that opioids are involved in many different aspects of brain function - sometimes we can use this to advantage, eg for pain relief, but these systems can be hijacked if someone is abusing drugs and can cause harm. A bit of a goldilocks principle - you need just the right amount of opioid neurotransmission, not too much, not too little

  • A good question. Currently the genetic influence on many mental health conditions is poorly understood. There is some evidence beginning to come through that some drugs work better in some people than others because of the genetic make-up of those individuals, as well as the experiences that they have had in their lives. This is a really important finding as...

  • There is clearly evidence that revisiting material is related to how well information is retained - how many times this has to be done is going to depend on a variety of factors including the individual's inherent ability and experience, the complexity of the information/task and the importance of acquiring the information/skill to the individual

  • Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter in the brain. It is found in almost all regions and appears to play a role in very many brain functions and hence be perturbed in dysfunction.

  • Yes, the axons can be thought of as hardware, but they convey messages through a form of electrical signalling, which is more like the software. So the decision to move is made by axons communicating together in your brain but then the message is sent to your muscles via the axon hardware. It's a bit like how electricity flows form the power station to your...

  • the cell body is the bit of the cell that keeps it alive - all neuronal cell bodies are very small. The axons are the bit of the neurone that carry the messages to other parts of the cell. So whilst the cell body can remain very small in the giraffe the axons of the neurones will need to be much longer to reach from the location of the cell body (in the spinal...

  • I suspect that you may be referring to the situation where someone has a stroke due to a small clot in a blood vessel supplying the brain. If you can dissolve the clot quickly then blood supply can return to the brain and function is better preserved.

  • It's really encouraging to see comments such as these - dispelling the view that a different brain is necessarily a bad brain was one of my motivations for calling this programme its name

  • For most people this is the case. However, a small % of right handed people have basic language localised in the right hemisphere. For left-handed people there is a bigger difference with only around 70% having basic language functions localised in the left hemisphere

  • Absolutely! I tell my students all the time that they should work with each other as they can get good feedback on their own understanding that way. you definitely can't explain something to someone if you do not understand it yourself.

  • Good - it is a very difficult concept to appreciate, I am still amazed that such microscopic structures can have such influence - imagine how long axons of neurones can be in a blue whale....!

  • @LisaTaylor You may be unsurprised to learn that some research has been done on this - the initial results seemed very contradictory but as more detailed studies have been carried out the picture has become clearer. In summary it appears that there is no simple answer - it all depends on the music, the person and the particular context in which they are studying so...

  • A good point Melanie and one that is the subject of much research. Currently, we have a lot of knowledge about the processes of building a brain but there are at least as many questions remaining as we have answers for. One of the areas where we don't know as much is how neurones identify which other neurones to make connections with. If you want to get some...

  • ...and to prompt discussion......would this include for those who had a decline in cognitive (i.e. thinking) function due to injury or a disease process as is seen in dementia?

  • Symptoms are vary variable between different individuals, at least in part because the location of the pathology determines which areas of the brain are more or less affected.

  • @BobDeeMon Haha! I like it

  • Thanks Amanda, that's really useful feedback. if you think of anything else that it would have been helpful to have some guidance about, let me know.

  • and next time around you'll have more understanding of the neurobiology related to enjoyment and knowledge acquisition and recall!

  • Neuroplasticity is a key feature of brain activity and what makes brains so much more than just a computer - as we learn about the processes that determine neuroplasticity we are beginning to see quite why the brain can perform its amazing functions

  • There is much evidence that humans are still evolving, and that will include the brain. See here:

  • Hmm, looks like we might be beginning to move towards the idea that connections between neurones may be more important than the number of individual neurones - if you think back to 2.5 and look at what gives neuones their ability to process information, you can see that it comes down to what information they receive.

  • Hello Alison - in my guide to studying the course I suggest that you might want to each keep a glossary of new terms that you meet - as you will all have different backgrounds this is a very personal thing. Also, as I am fond of telling my students, you will only be able to describe something in your own words if you understand it.

  • Alison Cooper replied to [Learner left FutureLearn]

    A very good point Benjamin, and almost certainly it is a combination of the two. There is some evidence that as the brain ages and neurones are lost then there is a bit of a shift from "in there somewhere" to "not in there anywhere". Interestingly the loss does not seem to be entirely random - older memories tend to be better preserved - there is lots of...

  • The differences in neuron and hence brain activity in ASD are the subject of much research. There are studies suggesting that some parts of the brain have more neurones and/or more connections between neurones than the average human brain, which might well lead to heightened function as you have described. Interestingly for some people with ASD there is...

  • Yes, but importantly it also has positive uses, for example in dystonia or cerebral palsy - everyone should make their own judgement as to whether using it cosmetically is a positive use! Perhaps a good illustration that, for any therapeutic agent, how it is used is important

  • @PolyhymniaMyrine The left and right sides of the brain are visible and for some functions, such as movement, one hemisphere will control movement on the opposite side of the body. The association of characteristics such as creativity to one side or the other is more controversial however and has largely been dismissed by the evidence. Parts of the brain may...

  • microglia are the subject of much research. Oddly they seem to be able to produce both good and bad effects on neurones when activated. At the moment it isn't entirely clear what factors determine which role they play but it would be obviously useful to know this so that treatments could be developed that can have them in the mode of supporting good things,...

  • A good question which we are unlikely to be able to answer as neurones aren't preserved. We do know that Neanderthals had bigger spaces in their skull to house their brains which is interpreted as meaning they had bigger brains.

  • A good question - it all comes down to the physical constraints of the material that the brain is made of - we also need the right neurones to be able to connect together - if we had simple expansion to, essentially, give us a greater sized sphere, then we would have a longer distance between one point on the surface and another - it's all down to geometry!

  • Yep - your brain is always busy - we often forget that our brains also are key for the functions we are not consciously aware of that you have listed.

  • A nice summary!

  • Both neurone and glial numbers decrease from the maximum. there is much controversy over the timescales of these events and what the functional consequences are. What looks fairly likely is that there remains some capacity to produce new neurons and glia throughout life though this is not at the same rate that neurones die. For glia the situation is more...

  • There are two halves of the cerebral cortex, often termed hemispheres - the symmetry in the brain probably came about in evolution when some genetic change resulted in the bodies of primitive organisms being duplicated to have the two halves. Initially each half of the brain interacted with each half of the body. Over time, our brains have evolved so that now,...

  • There is some evidence for "use it or lose it", although how well doing one activity that uses one collection of neurones helps support other neurones with different roles is unclear. However, if you are enjoying doing course, it can only be good one way or another!

  • Hello everyone - good to see that many of you are working your way through the course already. I shall be dropping in to see what sorts of comments and questions you are posting and will add in where I can help. If I miss your comment feel free to post again or alert me to it as I can't monitor your posts continuously.

  • yes, amazing that something so small containing only a few hundred thousand neurones out of the billions that we have can have such a profound effect on human activity

  • Very small! For the pars compacta part (the dopaminergic part) its about 150mm3

  • Yes.
    If yuo look at the pictures via the link below, you can see this.

  • @HeatherBeard
    No. The processes controlling melanin production in the brain and in the skin are different.

  • No simple answer here - it ll depends on what stage in degeneration we are looking. In people, their biology has usually already undergone a degree of compensation before they are being investigated so we are not looking at the pure effect of the degeneration but the compensated effect. What we can observe is that the expected control of peripheral processes...

  • This will vary country to country - it is still considered experimental as it hasn't been in use long enough in enough patients for there to be a clear idea of what the side effects might be and what the potential magnitude of the benefits over drug treatments is. In the UK, it is generally only considered once all of the available drug treatments have been tried

  • Noradrenaline is also a neurotransmitter within the brain and there is evidence that the neurons that produce it also degenerate in PD. This means that the control of the peripheral effects eg on heart are affected.

  • Antipsychotics do have an action on dopamine receptors - these are receptors in different parts of the brain than those affected in PD. However, some people taking antipsychotics may develop problems related to movement including a form of dyskinesia. However, this is not PD as such because there is no evidence that these effects are caused by death of the...

  • Good work here!

  • Dear Sheila, thank you very much for your kind words - I am glad that you are finding the course accessible and useful, this is what I set out to do when I put the course together and it is so very good to hear that it is achieving its aim.

  • Hello Douglas - thanks for posting up your personal experiences - it really enriches the course for other participants. As you have described, symptoms vary over time as well as between individuals. Also good to hear about yuor queue experience!

  • @JenniferHartt Yes, autonomic function can be affected, in some more than others. usually (of course there are exceptions!) these effects become apparent as the PD progresses. We will consider the aspects beyond voluntary movement in week 3 - hopefully you will be able to find the answers to yuor questions then.

  • Yes, that's right. For most people their symptoms appear initially on one side and, at least in the early stages, their symptoms are worse on one side than the other.

  • @ElaineWard Not necessarily. There aer different subtypes of melanain and their producation is controlled differently.

  • A nice summary Zsuzsanna!

  • Not a bad start but some minor inaccuracies and simplifications - we will slowly build up to looking at where and how dopamine works normally and the consequences of dysfunction so, hopefully, yuo will be able to update yuor description as you understand more

  • Hello everyone - I can see that many of yuo are busy already - great! Please do post yuor comments, experiences and queries - I will be dropping in when I can to see what you are all thinking about and will try and answer specific queries if I spot them.

  • I am not aware of any scientific evidence that would suggest that that is the case - however, it seems to work for you. Expereince of pain is a particularly difficult thing to explain neurobiologically because of the influence of other aspects of brain function such as emotion and attention.

  • Hello Janet - this idea is one (of many!) brain myths - there is little evidence that the functions of the two sides of the brain are dramatically different across the human population.

  • cerebral oedema, i.e. the accumulation of fluid is a serious problem, not least because the brain is encased in a solid box - the skull. Consequently, pressure within the skull builds up and this can cause damage to the neurones and axons - this might be reversible if the pressure can be relieved but can cause permanent damage if not.

  • Your biology here isn't quite correct - tolerance in the pharmacological sense has a particular meaning - when the drug user ceases to use the drug their tolerance to the drug reverses and they become normally sensitive - this is not the same process as we would perhaps expect when using the terms tolerance and intolerance in general language. this means that...

  • An excellent example of how "triggers" or "cues" can work. We often talk about "forgetting" but, as this example shows, often a more accurate description would be that we "can't recall into conscious memory" but if the right cue is there then it's easier to recall.

  • I very much like the idea of consciousbness being like the shed in yuor garden! Estimates suggest around 80 (maybe up to 100) billion neurones in the average human brain.