Over the course of four days covering the Neuroscience 2009 meeting in Chicago, I wrote nearly 7,000 words between Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. You might say I was excited to be there. But I know not everybody has an hour to devote to reading feverish recaps of the latest neuroscience research, so here’s a post summarizing some of my favorite parts, along with some excellent posts from other websites about the conference.
Eric Kandel – I was charmed by this 80-year-old Nobel laureate’s undiminished enthusiasm for scientific research; even though he’s already contributed more than perhaps anyone else to our understanding of how the brain learns and remembers, he’s still forging ahead with new, ambitious experiments.
Thomas Sudhof – There is no shortage of bad science about autism, so it was refreshing to hear some good science, even if the answers aren’t as easy and reassuring as those provided by the quacks. Sudhof, who used black widow spiders to discover two proteins that help neurons find each other and communicate, spoke eloquently about how defects in these proteins could underlie many of the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.
Optogenetics – Everyone at the conference seemed to be abuzz about this technique, developed by Karl Deisseroth of Stanford, for activating or de-activating specific neurons with light. Here’s an awesome video from Deisseroth’s lab of a mouse’s activity being controlled by a fiberoptic implant, and a talk by Deisseroth describing his method and its applications.
Wikipedia – Nothing new about this tech, of course, but two Wikipedian-scientists held a fascinating workshop on how neuroscientists can help improve public understanding of science by writing and editing for the open-source encylopedia…and circumvent the media in the mean time.
University of Chicago Represents
Mood-Affecting Tumors – Leah Pyter, postdoctoral researcher, gave a symposium lecture about how breast cancer tumors can cause depression in rats, a potential explanation for why a majority of human breast cancer patients are diagnosed with mood disorders.
Poster Party – The majority of the Neuroscience action is in the poster sessions, and I visited UChicago researchers and their posters on topics ranging from anxiety genetics and cortical maps to obese mice and drug mysteries to marijuana behavior.
Memory Deletion – Elizabeth Phelps from NYU talks about a method her lab developed to selectively erase memories of a fearful stimulus – lots of caveats, not yet published but still an exciting area where science trumps science fiction.
Egg-Laying Males – Arthur Arnold of UCLA has some strange birds in his lab, including one, called a gynandromorph, that is male on its left side and female on its right. But even cooler was the “e-male,” a male zebra finch that lays eggs, has ovaries instead of testes, but has a masculine brain – evidence that some sex differences are mediated directly by genes, not hormones.
Nature reporter Lizzie Buchen talks to an fMRI veteran about the limitations and promise of the widely-used brain imaging technique.
A friend of mine tipped me off to these guys – Backyard Brains – who were demonstrating how to record the electrical activity of neurons from a cockroach using an iPhone. But I missed it, like a sucker.
Greg Miller from Science covered a symposium on the use of stem cells for neuroscience research, finding a lot of ambitious plans but few solid results.
Encouraging vocal support of animal research in the face of escalating threats from animal rights activists against scientists was another hot topic at the meeting – even NIH Director Francis Collins was questioned abuot it. Here’s a report and video from the “Animals in Research: Widening the Tent” by science blog Neurotopia.