Aston 50th Anniversary: Professor Graham Harding Q&A

50 Aston Greats - Professor Graham Harding

Professor Graham Harding CPsychol, FBPsS, HonMRCP

Professor Graham Harding obtained a PhD in EEG (Electroencephalography) and Psychology from the University of Birmingham and, later, a DSc from Aston University. At Aston, in 1963, he founded the Clinical Neurophysiology Unit, which made pioneering contributions to the study of brain activity. He is a world leading expert on photosensitive epilepsy, and devised key guidelines for the broadcasting industry to ensure image safety. He was awarded an Honorary MRCP and later FRCP by the Royal College of Physicians for outstanding contributions to medical science.

How did you first become involved with the University?

I joined the Industrial Administration Department in 1961 to work on a research project on organisational behaviour. Having studied and worked with Dr Grey Walter - "the Father of EEG" - my ambition to work in this pioneering area of science was realised when I obtained the Wilmot Breeden Fellowship to study alpha rhythm in humans, and thus I was able to establish the Clinical Neurophysiology Unit at Aston University in 1963.

What was special about the Clinical Neurophysiology Unit?

In 1963 Aston became one of the very few UK universities with an academic department of clinical neurophysiology which studied real patients. In 1978 I became the first UK Professor of Clinical Neurophysiology. The Unit formed strong links with the Birmingham Children's Hospital and the Birmingham Eye Hospital.  Through its links with Birmingham University, an Epilepsy Clinic was established within the Unit.

How did you become interested in photosensitive epilepsy?

While studying patients with periodic psychosis I was fortunate to meet Dr Peter Jeavons, who became my best friend, EEG teacher and co-worker (for the next 14 years I read the patient EEGs at the Birmingham Children's Hospital). I was fascinated to see during these EEG recordings that when the technician subjected the patients to photic stimulation [flashing strobe light] to provoke brain reactions, discharges occurred in the EEG at specific flash rates which ceased when the light turned off.  I thought "Good heavens, we must be able to solve this”. Well, 50 years later I have written two books and 350 papers on this topic.

How did this work lead to you advising the broadcasting industry?

The Clinical Neurophysiology Unit had a large population of people with photosensitive epilepsy referred to us from all over the West Midlands. Referring doctors reported seizure incidents in young people coinciding with viewing BBC Top of The Pops on TV. The programme's intro included a Pop Art black and white flashing background. After investigating those patients affected by this we liaised with the BBC concerning the potential health risks of their broadcast images which they then subsequently revised. In 1993 an advert for Pot Noodles was broadcast which elicited three seizures. The Independent Television Commission contacted me and asked me to write national TV guidelines to prevent such events occurring in the future. 

The problem, however, was not confined to the UK. In 1997 TV Tokyo, Japan, broadcast an episode of the children's programme Pokémon to an audience of 10 million; it contained four seconds of coloured flashing and patterned images which caused 685 admissions to hospital with suspected seizures. TV Tokyo urgently contacted me to help them find the cause of this. I discovered that while the images flashed at a very provocative rate the colour reversals of red to cyan blue significantly increased the risk of seizures. Although the colours in the broadcast of blue and green, when viewed on TV, could replicate the sensitivity of the cones in the eye, the red colour used was long-wavelength red, which did not match the eye's colour cones and which, when reversed with cyan blue, and viewed on TV, elicited such a huge number of seizures. We tested the tape of the Pokémon incident and when shown in black and white with the same luminance as the colour version none of our patients produced abnormal responses. 

The TV Tokyo company flew me to Japan, inviting me to do a lecture tour, and also to advise them on how to prevent this occurring again. In the UK the ITC guidelines became the Ofcom guidelines and - as a result of this new knowledge - includes the requirement to give warnings of flashing images.

What is the best advice you can give to today’s graduates?

My advice to undergraduates is to do a placement year in an environment in which they intend to work. My advice to all potential postgraduate students is - go to the place which offers the best opportunities, the best facilities and academic excellence. Do not settle for second best; aim for the top, and be thrilled to discover new things in your field.