Reflections on the brain

Researchers put their heads together at the 2017 Society for Neuroscience conference – to spectacular effect
SfN 2017

About 30,000 people attended this year’s Society for Neuroscience conference. Photo: Truly Curious

P Rajendran
SfN logo
As far as going meta goes, the annual Society for Neuroscience conference, held this year in Washington, DC, was the most definitive one.

It is where you find that older people are more curious than the young. That the manatee, aka the sea cow, had few brain folds while a land cow’s is richly corrugated. That nicotine-exposed mouse dads produced kids with a relatively higher level of inattention and hyperactivity – what in humans we may call ADHD. That choline (found in meat, fish, eggs, peanuts, pasta, rice, etc) may have a protective effect on areas in the brains of young rats that had been exposed to alcohol in the uterus. We could go on.

In fact we will…

Did you know that while radiation in space could could damage brain structures and function, it may possibly be linked with better memory in certain tasks? Or that human brain cells transplanted into rats can survive in the new environment? That your intestinal microbes may have some influence on your chance of getting Parkinson’s disease? We could still go on. But we won’t. You get the idea, even if these are but a few examples of what could be crudely put forth in a sentence apiece.

Still, six days for a conference in a facility covering 2.3 million square feet may seem overwhelming. It was.

There were hundreds of symposia, minisymposia and nanosymposia, each giving researchers who had addressed problems for months to years a short window to exhibit their work and take questions.

Among other events, there were graduate school and job fairs, sessions on teaching school kids, science advocacy group meetings, opportunities to meet neuroscientists, and places where brain researchers could hold a dialogue with religious authorities (never mind that at least one discussion elsewhere was using data to argue against free will).

And then there were over 14,000 posters.

The space for those and the advertiser booths covered 473,000 square feet – an area larger than eight football fields – in the innards of the center. Even given four hours for each poster session, and two sessions every day, there was no way to cover all the information on view and still grasp the novel elements, clever solutions and some of the mistakes that are part of any research effort.

Shyam Gajavelli discusses stem cell use to address brain injury

Shyam Gajavelli discusses the use of human neural stem cells in brain injury at a session on how military service can affect the brain. Photo: Truly Curious

Emily Ortman who handles media at SfN pointed out that researchers don’t have the luxury to spend more time at the conference. The result was that people picked and chose what they wanted to see, and missed or remained unaware of research particularly relevant to them.

So someone from a Boston institution at a poster about stitching together brain images into 3D once artifacts were cleared was unaware of similar work being put up nearby. A poster farther along the row dealt with just the kind of irksome artifacts he had to contend with. A commercial enterprise that had a booth some rows down appeared to have ironed out a lot of problems in stitching using algorithms.

The conference may have lasted six days but there was no dearth of visitors. A speaker at the prelude to a presidential special lecture jokingly implored attendees to call in 28 more friends since that was how many people it would take to reach 30,000.

There were press conferences addressing important issues and hot topics such as the role of the microbiome, brain stimulation, brain injury, the use of opioids, etc. To heed it meant ignoring call of the posters and the bewildering variety of symposia.

There were sessions involving continuing medical education and a lot of satellite events held before, during and presumably after the conference had run its course. Most of these were held at other locations in the DC area.
For the truly curious, it was an event not to miss. Just FYI, the next one is in San Diego, in November 2018. Check for details.

Over time, Truly Curious will be covering some of the research presented at the conference, even though we cannot hope to do full justice all the fascinating and important work presented. Thank you for reading.

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