Very successful ‘Imaging the Nervous System’ Symposium

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The biennial Cambridge Neuroscience Symposium attracts neuroscientists from within and well beyond Cambridge. This year the theme was ‘Imaging the Nervous System’. The programme brought together a wide range of techniques to visualise and better understand the processes underlying everything from the intra-cellular RNA expression to the behaviour of nematodes and the development of human psychopathology. The event was attended by 400 delegates and featured 25 research talks and over 90 research posters. The symposium was opened by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz.

Day one focused on recent advances in fundamental neuroscience. Every presenter, as you may expect, showed off his or her exceptional images of the nervous system at the microscopic scale. The first session, chaired by Professor Bill Harris, kicked off with a discussion of how neuronal circuits evolve, from those in the hippocampus and amygdala of zebra fish (Kawakami), to the Drosophilia fruit fly (Cardona) and the stunning brainbow mice (Livet). This work was thrown into perspective by Professor Helmstaedter whose video of neurons imaged using electron microscopy reminded us how densely packed the cells of the central nervous system actually are. His talk promoted the “citizen science” games BrainFlight and Eyewire that have made tracking the exceptionally high volume of data that has been collected a fun game that anyone can take part in solving.

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Further highlights of day one included work on the role of RNA in guiding axons (Professor Christine Holt) and a symposium on the importance of understanding the physical structures of the nervous system (Knowles, Franze and Saibil, chaired by Dr Thora Karradottir). The Alan Hodgkin Lecture (in association with MedImmune) was awarded to Professor Winfried Denk, who discussed advances in mapping the connectome using microscopy. The day concluded with an exciting symposium chaired by Professor Ole Paulsen on the use of Femtonic technology to image the nervous system (Engert, Ji and Yuste), followed by the traditional conference dinner at King’s college, which was attended by 200 delegates.

Day two centred on imaging neuroscience at the level of cognition, with speakers bridging the gap between low-level neuroscience to high-level behavioural outcomes. The opening session (chaired by Professor Angela Roberts) began with Professor Tim Behrens who showed how spatial grid cell organisation in the hippocampus discovered in mice can successfully predict neural responses in category learning in human fMRI. Dr James Rowe showed how to integrate phenomena ranging from proteins to behavioural symptomatology in dementia, and how better understanding of the temporal time-course of these symptoms may ultimately allow for early detection. Professor Kalin discussed how the striking similarity in anxious temperament in monkeys and humans may help integrate the genetic and neural processes underlying these disruptive disorders. His talk included a heartfelt letter by a parent of a child suffering from major depressive disorder, providing a poignant reminder of the ultimate goals of fundamental neuroscientific research.

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The second session of day two (in association with Laser2000 and chaired by Professor Clemens Kaminski), featured Professors Emiliani, Klenerman and Zhuang, focused on the cutting edge of imaging methods such as optogenetics (the technique that allows for fine-tuned interference of single neurons firing) and fluorescence microscopy. Advances included greatly improved temporo-spatial resolution and super-resolution (sub-cellular) structural imaging of the nervous system (Klenerman). Professor Zhuang from Harvard University gave the Andrew Huxley lecture, and showed how fluorescence microscopy can be used to image the nervous system in astonishing, sub-cellular and three-dimensional detail. The ‘imaging cognition’ session (in association with Siemens and chaired by Professor Susan Gathercole) showed how neuroimaging can inform us about the effects of various forms of bias on attentional processes (Nobre), the neural circuits underlying dynamic cognitive flexibility and hierarchical learning (Kourtzi) and how ultra-high resolution MRI allows for better understanding of the mesoscopic organisation in the brain (Goebel). The final session, chaired by Professor Ed Bullmore, brought together network approaches to understanding the brain (Sporns), the use of computational models to understand and predict human cognition (Kriegeskorte) and long range neural connections during rest (Mantini).

 Overarching the meeting was the imaging the brain competition, showing neuroscience at its most beautiful. In addition to a judging panel (led by Professor Simon Laughlin) that selected the winning image and video, throughout the symposium people could vote on their favourite image and videos in the ‘public vote’. The entries included pictures of developing mouse brains, neural responses to loud sounds and human brain images. The image and video competition allowed us to see in beautiful technicolour the output of all the hard work that researchers in Cambridge are conducting. Like the conference itself, the pictures and videos covered the spectrum of neuroscience investigative techniques: stem cells growing in the dish, all the connections in the mouse brain, and human functional connectivity. The winning video was a spectacular look at the neonatal brain from the Irish perinatal research centre in Cork. ‘Baby Brainwaves’ by William Hutch et al., showed off the center’s dedication to making pregnancy safer and preventing brain injury in newborns. Miss Laura Brightman from the Gurdon Institute (Livesey Lab) won the image competition with an image entitled “Rosette Garden”. In fact, Laura also won the public vote for her second entry entitled “Neuronal Flare”. Each prizewinner was awarded £200 and Abcam sponsored the competition.

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The lunch- and coffee breaks brought together neuroscientists from a variety of backgrounds, from sub-cellular to systems scientists focusing on developmental disorders and psychopathology. These discussions often extended beyond the boundaries of the meeting itself, with several attendants tweeting live updates from the conference (#CambINS2015), allowing people from across the globe to virtually join the meeting. One aspect which remains important to the core of Cambridge Neuroscience meetings, is to foster excellent neuroscientific research here in Cambridge. To this end, more than 90 scientific posters were on display and although the standard of research was high, a team of judges (recruited from the Cambridge Neuroscience and led by Professor Michael Coleman) agreed on two outstanding group winners. Each winner received a £200 prize sponsored by Cambridge Neuroscience. Dr Amber Ruigrok from the Department of Psychiatry won the Post Doc prize for her work on “The effects of foetal testosterone on white matter in children”. Mr Michael Harte from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences won the PhD prize for his poster entitled “Applying the connectome to pre-surgical planning in neurosurgery.”

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Prof Sarah-Jayne Blakemore from University College London presented the public lecture at the end of the conference to a packed hall. Her PhD supervisor, Professor Daniel Wolpert from the Department of Engineering, introduced her. Blakemore’s TED talk on the “mysterious workings of the adolescent brain” has been viewed more than 1.6 million times, which reflects not only her personable, clear and passionate presentation style, but also the importance of her work to our everyday lives. Blakemore presented her lab’s work on understanding social interactions and the effect they have on teenagers’ behaviours, as well as their studies on the developing brain.

In fact, as Blakemore pointed out, adolescence starts at the onset of puberty but only ends “at the age at which an individual attains a stable, independent role in society”. How many of us can be assured that we have achieved this stage in our lives? Her work on the developing brain supports this feeling that we too may still be changing. She was inspired by her work with patients living with schizophrenia and their reports that the first symptoms of psychosis presented in their teenage years. In her talk, she presented compelling evidence that the brain continues to change all the way into the third decade of life. Importantly these changes are not all in sync, and they aren’t the same for different people. There are still many more questions for researchers to investigate around our understanding of the emergence of mental health disorders in adolescence. Following the lecture, Professor Blakemore joined members of the public and delegates for a drinks reception to close the meeting. All in all, a fitting ending to the biennial Cambridge Neuroscience symposium, which again provided an exciting glimpse of the cutting edge of neuroscience.

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Cambridge Neuroscience would like to thank all of the speakers, the sponsors, those who presented posters, images and videos, the judges, chairs, the delegates and of course all those who volunteered at “Imaging the Nervous System”.

Written by Rogier Kievit,  Kirstie Whitaker & Dervila Glynn

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