The FENS Forum: A Good Time to Be in Spain

This year is the “Year of Neuroscience” in Spain. As a part of this educational movement and celebration of the most recent flowering of Spanish neuroscience, Barcelona hosted the FENS Forum of Neuroscience. Drawing what the Chair of the Host Committee, Mara Dierssen, described as the largest number of attendees ever, the 8th FENS meeting fostered cross-disciplinary discussion and showcased some of the field’s best science.

Cori Bargmann gave a fascinating plenary lecture on behavior in C. elegans. Most of the talk focused on the nematode’s reproductive (all of her videos were G-rated, though some of her images were for scientific audiences only) and social foraging behaviors. Bargmann’s take-home message was that the wiring diagram, generally considered to be well characterized in C. elegans, is ambiguous and incomplete because the same wiring diagram can give rise to different responses. She emphasized that neuroscientists need increasingly to consider the role of biogenic amines in modifying the type or strength of responses, a major part of the interaction between genes and the environment. 

One of the most visually impressive talks was given by Henry Markram, whose group is doing equally impressive modeling work. His lab has created a “facility” of software and algorithms that can potentially build models of any brain region in any species. Markram displayed, after repeatedly pleading for the lights to be lowered, beautiful images of rat cortical column and virtual slice models built on painstakingly collected neuroanatomical data. He described how the model could be used for exploratory research in a variety of ways, such as in silico cell knockout experiments. Markram argues that high-power computing tools like his will provide a “catalytic strategy” to move the field of neuroscience forward and to reconcile the information that already exists. The tool is not yet freely available though Markram plans to release it after publication, likely some time this year.

Daphne Bavelier’s plenary lecture “Learning to learn with action video games” was, for obvious reasons, very popular. Her group has shown that playing action video games enhances attentional control and perceptual learning ability. Behavioral experiments found that action gamers’ greater learning skill was not task dependent, suggesting that playing action games teaches people how to learn more efficiently. This hypothesis was further supported the functional imaging studies showing better resource allocation during learning in the brains of action gamers. Bavelier’s talk left part of the audience contemplating more time spent gaming, and another part – the part of the audience doing human behavioral work – wishing they had such an easy time recruiting subjects.

Other personal highlights from the meeting include Sebastian Seung’s crowd-sourcing of AI refinement, Joris Veltman’s application of whole exome sequencing of patient and parent pairings to identify genetic causes of malformation syndromes, Tomáš Paus’ “big n neuroscience” that combines epidemiology, genetics and neuroscience to explain individual variability, and Michael Häusser’s use of the phrase “kinky rise time” when describing an electrophysiological trace.

All-in-all, an engaging meeting and it was great to see so many students attending. I anticipate that the next conference in Milan will be very busy as well.