Highlights of this year’s SfN annual meeting

Highlights of this year’s SfN annual meeting

The SfN annual meeting was an excellent event this year, despite the noticeably cooler weather compared to San Diego in 2013. Here, we highlight 6 of our favourite sessions from Washington D.C.

1. The Neuroscience of Gaming

Sunday 16th November, 1:00 – 3:00 pm

It was perhaps unsurprising how popular this particular session was, given the current popularity of video games. After a brief introduction from each of the speakers the majority of the roundtable was an open question and answer session with some interesting overall conclusions.

By the end of the discussion there was a general consensus that video games have the potential to teach us a great deal about cerebral function and even improve it. However, they didn’t shy away from the possible negative side effects of video games, like addiction and even increased violence.

2. Surprising Origins of Sex Differences in the Brain

Sunday 16th November, 1:00 – 2:10 pm

The hormonal effects on sexual differentiation in the brain are fairly well established. During the perinatal period males produce large amounts of testosterone. This is aromatised in neurons to oestrogen where it impacts synaptic patterning, neurogenesis, glial genesis, differential cell death, migration and phenotype differentiation. Females are not exposed to this level of steroidal hormones and are generally considered as the default sex in brain differentiation.

Understanding how hormones regulate these changes may help us understand why there is a gender bias towards certain disorders. Why are men prone to autism, ADHD and dyslexia and schizophrenia and women more likely to suffer depression, anorexia, OCD and anxiety? In this special lecture the delightful Margaret McCarthy, from the University of Maryland, presented some recent findings on this topic.

Professor McCarthy presented the idea that the mechanisms of sexual differentiation in the brain depend upon the region. Her group looked at the preoptic area (POA) and the amygdala for gender differences. Male mice have twice the number of dendritic spines in the POA compared to females. This appears to be regulated by the prostaglandin PGE2. An increase in PGE2 in neonatal females led to doubling of dendritic spines in the POA. Males also have more microglia in the POA and amygdala microglia were more active in males. These microglia carried out “synaptic pruning” of new neurons in this area in males but not in females.

New evidence also suggests epigenetic modifications to DNA, as a result of experiences during early life, help maintain these sex differences into adulthood.

3. Enhancing Reproducibility of Neuroscience Studies

Sunday 16th November, 8:30 – 11:00 am

Another well attended session despite the lack of scientific breakthroughs, concentrated on what funding bodies, journals and researchers can do to improve reproducibility in neuroscience studies.

In the symposium, chaired by Story Landis, Véronique Kiermer of Nature publishing talked about how journals can help. New ways that Nature are attempting to aid reproducibility include: checklists for reporting standards, abolishing length constraints for methods, promoting data sharing and intensifying the scrutiny of statistics.

Huda Zoghbi, from the Baylor College of Medicine, and John Morrison, from Mount Sinai Hospital, finished of the talk from the side of the researchers. Dr Zoghbi spoke about the importance of knowing the limitations of animal studies in preclinical research and the reproducibility of these results in the clinic.

4. The Living Record of Memory: Genes, Neurons and Synapses

Saturday 15th November, 5:15 – 6:25 pm

How do we turn experiences into memories? That was the topic of Neuroscience 2014’s first Presidential Special Lecture in the packed out Hall D at the Washington Convention Centre.

In order to from long-term memories gene expression within neurons must be altered. This gene expression alters connectivity and wiring within the brain. However, synapses can be a long way from the nucleus. This talk looked at how synapses send signals to the nucleus and which molecules are responsible. Dr Martin also presented new insights into how newly transcribed proteins in neurons localise themselves in order to solidify synaptic connections.

5. What Drives Sleep-Wake Cycles: Identification of Molecules and Circuits in Drosophila

Sunday 16th November, 8:30 – 9:40 am

Sleep is driven by the circadian rhythm, the approximately 24-hour cycle maintained by the suprachiasmatic nucleus. This lecture looked at the cellular and molecular mechanisms that regulate this pattern. Also discussed were recent findings of the molecular components and cellular circuits that underlie homeostatic regulation.

In addition, research released on the day of the lecture, found that:

  • Increasing the production of 4EBP2 (a naturally occurring protein) in mice enables the animals to retain spatial memory skills after being deprived of sleep. This confirms that the brain pathway activated by that protein is a factor in memory problems associated with sleep loss.
  • Eating during what would normally be the “sleep” phase of the day causes memory problems in mice, even if the animals get enough sleep at another time of the day, a finding that may have implications for shift workers and others who experience disrupted sleep patterns.
  • Two drugs, known as Compound 7 and SGT11, restored function and reduced excessive sleepiness in brain-injured mice, perhaps by protecting the brain from inflammation, a dangerous after-effect of traumatic brain injury.

6. Optogenetics: Integration With Electrophysiology

Tuesday 18th November, 1:00 – 5:00 pm

As a company with a background in electrophysiology equipment and a brand-new optogenetics system, this was a really interesting poster session for Scientifica specifically. The posters presented here show that there is already a thriving combination between the two techniques, and there is a lot of potential for future research. Ed Boyden from MIT, one of the pioneers of optogenetics, was impressively represented with his name on 17 of the 19 posters! 2 posters that particularly caught our eye were “Red-shifted optogenetic neural manipulation in Drosophila melanogaster” and “Next-generation multiphoton optogenetic control via opsin engineering and computer generated holography”. Both show the work going in to developing the area of optogenetics.

After this year’s program we are really looking forward to seeing what will be happening in Chicago in 2015.

Hopefully, we will see you there!

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