It’s just under a week to go until the 8th FENS (Federation of European Neuroscience Societies) Forum kicks off in Barcelona, Spain. The FENS Forum is held biennially and is — using the words of Professor Fotini Stylianopoulou, Professor of Biology at The University of Athens and Secretary-General of FENS:
“The top international neuroscientific event held in Europe…”*
Past meetings have been attended by neuroscientists from all over the world, at all stages of their research careers, and this year’s Forum is no exception; it offers scientists a chance to present, absorb and discuss cutting-edge research at the forefront of neuroscientific discovery…
“It’s where every neuroscientist […] wants to be.” – Stylianopoulou*
A rather stringent selection process ensures that the FENS program really is the best of the best, which is why it’s difficult to pick a “must-see” list of attractions from the vast and varied FENS agenda.
The phrase ‘vast and varied’ really does apply to the FENS Forum 2012: In the line-up this year there are nine plenary lectures (all equally hot topics in neuroscience), fifty-nine symposia (covering an array of different subjects, from the history of neuroscience to the inner workings of the adolescent brain), twelve special lectures (including new set of prize lectures for The Brain Prize) and numerous workshops and satellite symposia, held before or after the main meeting.
So how does one go about creating their ideal itinerary from all of the above?
It’s definitely a question I asked myself when putting this pseudo-guide together. I write ‘pseudo-guide’ as I realize no single itinerary conjured up here could cover the needs of everyone attending The FENS Forum. Here you’ll find a description of what I’ll be traveling to Barcelona to see, but I hope it can be used by some as a launch-pad for planning their own personal programs (if you haven’t done so already).
The first thing I’ll point out before I get stuck into the scientific content is that The FENS forum has gone green. In other words there will be no physical copy of the program literature available this year. It will all be available online and via app format – so make sure you pack your power cables! Time has truly been called on bulky abstract books that ultimately end up as recycling (or worse, form the oft seen mountains of unwanted program books piled around conference center trash cans).
Reward driven behavior
Ever had that sense of “I wonder what would have happened if…?” when deciding upon one course of action instead of another? How do we decide which of these courses to follow in the first place? Well it has a lot to do with reward-guided learning and — especially in the case of the former question — how our brains construct perceived rewards of particular outcomes based on similar experiences.
If you want to know more about the subject of reward-guided learning, Matthew Rushworth will divulge some of his research into the neural control of action, planning and decision making in the Opening Kavli Lecture (Saturday July 14 at 6 pm). Rushworth heads the lab of Decision and Action in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. His talk will focus on the prefrontal cortex and the role it plays in learning which choices are best, how to choose between several courses of action and how we react to their outcomes and assign particular values to them for future decision making.
Cooking with the brain
Immediately following on from Matthew Rushworth’s talk is a short session that will provide conference goers with something a little different in flavor to the rest of The Forum (though not entirely unrelated to reward-driven learning!)
Award-winning and world-influencing chef Carme Ruscalleda will talk on the interaction between neuroscience and gastronomy, which, as many know, can be a very rewarding partnership indeed! Her thirty-five minute session, entitled “Cooking with the brain” (Saturday July 14 at 7 pm), aims to introduce why and how current trends in cuisine creation enhance our sensory experience of food, using knowledge of how its individual components stimulate our brains.
The Brain Prize
On Sunday there is a session dedicated to a relatively new, but prestigious prize in neuroscience; The Brain Prize (Sunday July 15 at 1 pm) is in fact so high in status it is worth one million euros! Professor Stylianopoulou likens it to the neuroscientific equivalent of The Nobel Prize.*
See the three speakers in The Brain Prize session — Peter Somogyi, Györgi Buzsaki and Tamas Freund — present their work on rhythms in the brain, covering roles in chronocircuitry to anxiety and epilepsy.
Building a brain
Building an artificial brain powered by a supercomputer seems like the stuff of science fiction, but it is what the Blue Brain project — a joint project by the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland and IBM — aims to do. Blue Brain Project Director Henry Markram will be speaking at the FENS Forum 2012 and will deliver his talk: “Simulation Based Brain Research: the next evolution in neuroscience” to the audience (Monday July 16 at 5.30 pm). Online footage of a talk he gave at a TED conference in 2009 demonstrates why I’m looking forward to attending his talk. It is also a recommendation of the Secretary-General herself to go and see:
“[It forms] The Human Brain project — which will be equivalent to The Human Genome project of a decade ago. [It] aims to simulate the human brain and its diseases. Controversial; very ambitious, but a very important project.” – Stylianopoulou*
Is gaming good for the brain?
I expect competition for seats at my next talk selection to be high as it provides an interesting answer to the question: “Just what effects do video games have on our brains?” We live in an era of computers and games consoles, which now, more than ever, form part of the daily experience – especially in childhood. The debate might range from action games to socializing online, but the effects of prolonged interaction with computers on the brain is a hotly disputed topic by the media and concerned parents alike. The general consensus is that computer games are bad, but Daphne Bavelier has data that may come as a surprise to most – whether ardent fan or fervent opponent of games. Action gaming, hypothesized to be mind-numbing in consequence, actually has several beneficial effects on attentional, behavioral and sensory capabilities; even vision is thought to be enhanced in action video game players compared to their non-gaming peers. Catch Bavelier’s talk on Tuesday July 17 at 5.30 pm.
Optogenetics: stimulating the brain with light
A fascinating and emerging area in neuroscience is the field of optogenetics. Based on a new technique that combines genetics and optical engineering to stimulate discreet areas of neuronal circuitry with light, it looks set to be a very powerful way to approach an abundance of neuroscientific questions. At The FENS Forum this year, there are a number of sessions dedicated to this technique and the research it enables. These include: a plenary lecture given by Barry Dickson of the IMP in Vienna, entitled “Wired for sex: the neurobiology of Drosophila courtship behavior“ (Wednesday July at 1 pm); “Advanced optical methods for patterned optogenetics“, a pre-meeting workshop on using various optogenetic techniques (Saturday July 14) and an “Optical methods and Optogenetics” poster session (Monday July 16, starting 11:15 am). These sessions are a must for those currently in the optogenetics field, but Dickson’s plenary is highly recommended — even though his foray into optogenetics is in its early stages, the development of the fly mind altering device (flyMAD) in Dickson’s lab sounds cool…imagine switching on discreet behaviors simply using the right wavelength of light!
Enjoy the meeting!
I hope this small selection of FENS Forum attractions serves as a useful reference for planning your own personal itinerary — don’t forget to include the wonderful array of FENS Forum social events in your considerations of what to do, including the traditional outing for the young and young-at-heart with the Jump the FENS social! Most importantly, enjoy the meeting (and Barcelona)!
*Quotes are sourced from a video interview with Professor Fontini Stylianopoulou made by the FENS Forum press office and available to view on Youtube.