Friday, November 25, 2011

Highlights from the 2011 Society for Neuroscience Conference

Last week was the 2011 Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington, D.C. If you’re unfamiliar, this conference is a meeting of over 31,000 neuroscientists to share their recent findings. The topics covered are seemingly limitless – they’ve got everything from synapse formation to the brain basis of neuropsychological disorders!

SfN, as it is called, is a great opportunity to meet with former colleagues and mentors, and it gives young scientists a chance to meet and impress potential future employers. Although it can be quite overwhelming (31,000 people for 5 days!), it gives you a chance to share your ideas and learn from people you normally don’t get to talk to.  This makes me think of a challenge facing scientists around the world: The enormity and complexity of interdisciplinary fields like neuroscience require us to communicate effectively about what we learn in our individual labs. For me the jury is still out on whether or not we are truly successful in this regard. But, conferences are a good start.

Some highlights from my visit:
  • A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner that can scan TWO BRAINS at once! The engineering and mathematical challenge of this is too great to explain here. I cannot believe that people have been moderately successful at this! Why go through all the trouble? Although I’m still not sure it is completely worth it, the idea is that you can study people directly interacting with one another and simultaneously measure the brain activity in both people. This opens up a lot of doors in social neuroscience, if we can get it to work well…
  • An fMRI study found differences in how different brain regions interacted while people were performing a task under the threat of being shocked compared to when they knew they weren’t going to be shocked. Preliminary data show that these differences are relevant to who is resilient to developing post-traumatic stress disorder after they’re exposed to a traumatic event.
  •  One of the most impressive feats of the brain is the integration of information from multiple senses. I saw a lecture about a series of really cool studies that recorded monkeys’ brain activity while they were in a virtual reality environment in which their bodies moved either congruently or incongruently with the visual stimuli that they saw.
  • A panel about the obesity epidemic in the US, and how neuroscience can potentially help. This was one of my favorite events because it included both the traditional lecture style, but also gave audience members a chance to ask questions of five different scientists with different areas of expertise.
  • Too many other cool things to keep track of!
-Becky van den Honert
1st Year Psychology PhD candidate

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