A Meeting to Remember: The BNA Festival of Neuroscience 2017

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bnaThe British Neuroscience Association (BNA) Festival of Neuroscience is a fascinating biannual event which aims at bringing together neuroscientists from all over the UK (and the world!) to share ideas, celebrate recent successes in the field and to meet others who are equally excited about the future of neuroscience. With more than 1500 delegates, 750 posters, over 40 seminars and symposiums spanning across 12 diverse themes and 60 exhibitors, the BNA Festival of Neuroscience 2017 was one of the largest international neuroscience meetings in Europe this year.

The BNA Festival of Neuroscience 2017 took place in Birmingham from the 10th – 14th April at the glamorous International Convention Centre located in the heart of what felt like a lively and friendly city. As usual, there was a strong Cambridge presence at the festival with numerous attendees, speakers and presenters affiliated with the University of Cambridge as well as a number of companies and organisations based in Cambridge.


2The programme of the BNA Festival of Neuroscience 2017 was extremely diverse and dynamic – there was a little something for everyone who attended. Delegates could choose to take part in various symposiums, plenary talks, public engagement sessions and lectures, career speed networking events, poster presentations, social events and exhibitions. It is hardly possible to describe in so few lines all the fascinating events I managed to be part of during these four days, but here is an overview of some of the highlights for me from BNA2017.


The day started with a session on spinal motor control where some cutting-edge research was presented. Of particular interest was a talk by Dr Ronaldo Ichiyama from the University of Leeds who shed new light on the timing of epidural stimulation, rehabilitation and drug treatment after spinal cord injury. He claimed that in contrast to previous beliefs that these therapies should be administered simultaneously, the best functional outcomes are achieved when there is an interval of several weeks in between.

The talks were followed by a poster session where there was a variety of posters from presenting a novel zebrafish model of autism spectrum disorders, through describing the role of microglial activation in Alzheimer’s disease to finding a novel marker for religious beliefs.

The exhibition was also of top quality with a variety of exhibitors from all over the UK and the world – some of them had tempting offers especially for the delegates and exciting competitions. I even managed to win myself a little fluffy devil from Miltenyi Biotec named Den Dritic.

The official opening of the conference, as well as a rather intriguing introduction to the first plenary speaker, was given by the BNA’s President – Prof. John Aggleton. Prof. Masud Husain – an outstanding researcher from the University of Oxford brought us up to date with the most current research on the topic of how memory, attention and motivation link together and how this link is disrupted in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The first day of the festival ended with a welcome reception where the CamBRAIN (Veselina Petrova) and Cortex Club (Samuel Picard) Presidents exchanged some ideas and inspirations for future events.


Day 2 of the BNA Festival of Neuroscience 2017 had a strong Cambridge presence. The day started with a session entitled “Old brains, new insights” where two researchers –

Karen Campbell (currently at Brock University, previously in Prof. James Rowe’s lab) and Kamen Tsvetanov (a post-doctoral researcher in Prof. James Rowe’s lab at Addenbrookes) showed fascinating fMRI studies on the CamCAN cohort of 3000 people aged between 18 and 88. Karen provided evidence that the functional strengthening between brain networks declines in old vs. young participants using a natural viewing task which tested attention, memory and emotion. Kamen spoke of the different profile older brains show on fMRI scans compared to young brains and described a novel model of accounting for vascular effects when analysing these results.

This session was followed by yet another outstanding Cambridge researcher’s plenary lecture – Prof. Andrea Brand from the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience. Prof. Brand presented some exciting research on how neural stem cells can be awoken by nutrition in adult Drosophila model with the participation of a gene unsurprisingly named Tribbles for the fans of Star Trek.

In the breaks between sessions researchers and exhibitors could admire some intriguing pieces of neuroscience art by artist Rebecca Ivatts who paints the human brain in its various different states. The next session for the day was the President Symposium which aimed at familiarising the audience with the latest Wellcome Trust and EEF-funded projects on neuroscience-informed education. All these projects aim at improving students’ school experience at several hundred schools across the UK by implementing the latest neuroscience research such as the effects of exercise on the cognition, the reward pathways in competition-based tasks, etc in the school curriculum. The session was extremely inspiring as one could see a real example of neuroscience research directly being used to improve people’s lives.

The second plenary lecture of the day was given by Prof. Graham Collingridgea winner of the 2016 Brain Prize who played a pioneering role in understanding the molecular basis of LTP and its role in learning and memory by studying the hippocampal circuitry.

Probably the most memorable event of the day for me, however, was the public lecture given by Paul Howard-Jones, a well-known figure from the famous TV show “The secret life of 4, 5 and 6 year olds”, a Professor of Neuroscience and Education at the University of Bristol and “a former earlgray addict” as he described himself. Paul gave a fascinating talk about how neuroscience plays an indispensible role in education and about some of the misconceptions of neuroscience research in teaching.


Day 3 started with a rather interesting careers workshop called “Beyond Academe”. There we had the opportunity to hear the inspiring stories, unexpected twists and turns as well as the motivation of several neuroscientists who have gone on to work in various different fields. Among the presenters were Victoria Gill (BBC Presenter), Gary Gilmour (Senior Research Scientist at Eli Lilly), Lucy Foss (Team Manager, Wellcome Trust), Natasha Bray (Associate Editor at Nature Reviews Neuroscience) and Erica Smith (Preclinical Scientist at Imanova). All talks had two overriding messages – one was that you can still have intricate contact with science even outside of the traditional academic path and the second one was that switching fields of expertise is not uncommon today as long as in the end of the day you end up in a happy, fulfilling position which satisfies your drive and your thirst for knowledge. The morning symposia were followed by a plenary lecture given by Alon Chen outlining some of the stress pathway mechanisms using optogenetics.

However, undoubtedly the most memorable and inspiring event for me for the day and probably for the whole festival was the second plenary lecture given by Prof. May-Britt Moser. May-Britt was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine together with Edvard Moser and John O’Keefe for discovering the cells in our brains which form a spatial map of our surroundings – place cells and grid cells. As described by John Aggleton in his introduction, May-Britt is someone with unstoppable enthusiasm, being able to ask simple but important questions and someone who is willing to go an extra mile in order to answer these questions. Indeed, all these qualities came through May-Britt’s talk – the research she presented was so logical and the ease she explained complex concepts with was astonishing. I did indeed ask myself “How did not anyone think to do this in the past?” and at the same time I knew that the answer lies in the fact that in order to do “big science” you need to be open-minded and see things from a different perspective which is exactly what May-Britt did. For me, this lecture was not only an inspiration but an eye-opener to the kind of science I would like to conduct in the future – selfless, intriguing, logical and most of all inspiring to others


The last day of the BNA2017 was rather extraordinary. The day started with a symposium on “Breaking Neuroscience” in which we had once again a strong Cambridge presence – Dr David Belin presented some exciting research he recently conducted in collaboration with Prof. Barry Everitt revealing some of the brain pathways involved in addiction through the use of a rodent model of cocaine self-administration.

The last workshop of the conference was a rather touching and a personal one. It was named “Neuroscience Post-Brexit”. As an EU scientist in the UK, I still have many questions unanswered about the future of my career in this country and so did many others who attended the workshop. However, this workshop was not about answering questions – it was about sharing experiences, thinking of ways how we can counteract the consequences of Brexit and what we as individuals could do to make sure that cutting-edge science continues to be carried out in Britain even if there are some barriers to it.

The closing part of the BNA2017 started with presenting the awards for best posters among two categories – student award and young investigator award. The award ceremony was followed by a fascinating lecture by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore describing how adolescence is an extremely sensitive period of brain development and how some external pressures such as peer pressure can have a major effect on behaviour and health.

In a nutshell, BNA2017 did not fail to arouse my fellow neuroscientific curiosity for yet another year! Inspiration, cutting-edge science, laughter, friendly faces and an endless sea of knowledge – this is what the BNA was for me this year. I cannot wait for BNA2019, hello Dublin!

Article by Veselina Petrova – CamBRAIN President

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