Nick Davey

Neuroscientist specialising in spinal injury

Nick Davey was a neuroscientist who specialised in the central nervous control of movement in man. His pioneering work in transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) caught the public's imagination when, in 2000, he took part in a project with a French choreographer and dancer, Kitsou Dubois, to investigate the control of movement in weightlessness.

Nicholas John Davey, neuroscientist: born Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire 3 November 1957; Honorary Research Physiologist, National Spinal Injuries Centre, Stoke Mandeville Hospital 1986-2005; Lecturer, Department of Physiology (later Department of Sensorimotor Systems), Division of Neuroscience & Psychological Medicine, Imperial College School of Medicine, Charing Cross Hospital 1995-2002, Senior Lecturer 2002-05; married 2001 Cicely Corke (one daughter); died Quainton, Buckinghamshire 9 February 2005.

Nick Davey was a neuroscientist who specialised in the central nervous control of movement in man. His pioneering work in transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) caught the public's imagination when, in 2000, he took part in a project with a French choreographer and dancer, Kitsou Dubois, to investigate the control of movement in weightlessness.

"Dancers," reflected Davey in a BBC Blue Sky programme in 2001,

are able to maintain their posture for long periods of time while they move their arms and while they move their limbs and nothing seems to happen to them. They maintain that verticality throughout all these complex manoeuvres that they are making with their limbs and this is due presumably to the control of the muscles in their trunk and the muscles either side of their spine keeping them upright. The really interesting thing is - why is it that they are different?

The Wellcome Trust awarded £36,000 to the project, a collaboration between Dubois and Davey's team of scientists from Imperial College, London. The work was carried out at zero gravity aboard the Novospace A300 airbus during a "parabolic flight".

As part of his general work on spinal injury, Davey wanted to find out how the back muscles work to counter arm movements on the opposite side and stop the individual falling over. The project showed that the contraction of the back muscles was a voluntary rather than an automatic, reflex one, a critical finding for rehabilitation of spinally injured patients.

TMS works by using an electromagnetic coil which is placed over the head to generate brief magnetic pulses, well below the strength of an MRI scan. These pulses stimulate specific parts of the brain in the cerebral motor cortex, which in turn stimulates specific nerves to muscles. The instrument allows scientific and clinical investigation of motor function, or therapy.

Davey - a co-editor of the Handbook of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (2002) - became interested in TMS and its use as an investigative and therapeutic technique in 1991. Over the years, he used the technique to investigate a number of disorders such as Parkinson's, schizophrenia, arthritis, back pain and chronic fatigue. It was in the use of TMS in the area of spinal injury that he became best known.

Recently, he had developed a new technique involving repeated stimulation (rTMS). A pilot study had been completed on people who had suffered partial injuries to their spinal cord, where the spinal cord was not entirely severed, but the patient had still lost the ability to move and feel properly below the injury point. Through rTMS, the patients were able to recover some of their movement and feeling. "The [electromagnet's] repeated signals," Davey told The Independent in January, "may work a bit like physiotherapy, but, instead of repeating a physical task, the machine activates the surviving nerves to strengthen their connections."

A more comprehensive study to build on the pilot results has just begun at Imperial College and the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville.

Born in 1957, Nick Davey grew up on a farm in Stoke Mandeville. His father, Albert Davey, was one of the first producers of battery-farmed chickens in England. An engineer at heart, he designed many simple yet ingenious methods of automatically heating and cooling the hen-houses and feeding the hens. Nick loved to work alongside his father, and developed an early interest in the engineering and practicality of his inventions.

At the age of 13 he went to Aldenham School, where his biology master, Mr Galvin, set him on the course to become a scientist. He gained a BSc in Zoology at Bedford College, London, and a PhD at Imperial College. There followed a number of post-doctoral posts at Imperial College and the Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School, culminating in a senior lectureship at Imperial.

In the mid-1980s, Nick Davey started to become interested in the neuroscience surrounding spinal injury. The National Spinal Injuries Centre was only a mile away from his home and he felt a particular empathy with the spinally injured. In 1986 he became an honorary research physiologist at the centre, and began the first of a series of collaborative initiatives between it and Imperial College.

Davey wanted to see his work helping people. In 1994, Barbara Woodhouse's daughter asked him to research a plant from the Amazon rainforest which she claimed had cured her mother's diabetes. Initial investigations by Davey - himself a recently diagnosed insulin- dependent diabetic - in collaboration with Kew Gardens showed no results. Davey appeared on the television programme Schofield's Quest to try to source a more recent sample of the plant - sparking an interest in the media that stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Nick Davey was passionate about teaching and inspiring a new generation of neuroscientists. He was also passionate about Tony Hancock, British sit-coms and trains (and what caused them to crash). He travelled the world to deliver lectures, but he was happiest at home with his family - he married relatively late - in their thatched cottage in Quainton, the Buckinghamshire village where he had always dreamt of living.

His life was just starting to take off when he was killed in a car crash. His research had never looked more promising, and two weeks earlier he had celebrated his adored daughter's second birthday.

Cicely Davey

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