…by Chiara / from Austria / PhD Neuroscience 2016-2019
It was that day of the year for Neuroscienctists in Edinburgh again yesterday: the annual celebration of all science related to the brain, aka. Edinburgh Neuroscience Day. Ranging from cognitive to computational to laboratory neuroscience, Edinburgh Neuroscience had a packed programme full of talks by both established researchers as well as graduate students, and a wide spectrum of posters.
It was my third time attending Neuroscience day – time really passes very fast in Edinburgh – and a big change was made since the previous year. Our usual venue, the old and beautiful Royal College of Physicians in New Town, is currently undergoing renovations so we had to move. Therefore, Neuroscience Day took place at the John McIntyre Conference Centre at Pollock Halls. I knew this venue already from the PhD Autumn School, and while it is not as beautiful as the Royal College of Physicians, it was still a good choice and we all fit (which can be challenging with 276 delegates and 54 posters, and the requirement of some space to spread out and network!).
Most of the talks were not really relevant to my own research, but from experience I knew the day would be interesting anyway and I was not disappointed. Especially the things that I do not know much about tend to be the most fascinating; in my opinion, scientists have become too specialised over the past decades, with very focused knowledge of their own research and matters closely related to it, but sometimes losing the bigger picture. I believe that sometimes, taking a step back and thinking about your work in a broader context can tremendously help to gain new ideas and spark creativity.
Keynote lecture: “The nightlife of the brain”
The keynote speaker this year was Prof. Maiken Nedergaardfrom Copenhagen/Rochester (New York), presenting her work on the glympathic system.Opening her talk, she told us she was annoyed at people thinking that the brain is simply a “computer” and once we know exactly how each neuron works and fires, we will have “solved” the brain. The brain is an interplay of neurons and glia, and glia are as well critically important for the function of the brain – this is a view I share and I think many neuroscientists are too focused on their favourite cell to see the whole interplay.
The glympathic system (for “glia” and “lymphatic” system) is a waste disposal mechanisms of the brain active during sleep and I first heard of it in a talk during my stay in Munich – so it was still very new to me. Constrasting to all other organs, the brain does not have a lymphatic system, which is critical for the removal of toxins and “waste”. What fascinated Prof. Nedergaard is that sleep appears to be such a critical factor to all animals – lack of sleep leads to severe symptoms such as hallucinations and even death. Sleep is not critical for organs such as the heart or liver, they function fine without sleep: it’s in the brain. What does the brain do during sleep? Using very intriguing live imaging of tracers injected into the CSF, including two photon imaging of awake and sleeping mice, she was able to convince us of the convective flow in the perivascular Robin-Virchow space (a tiny space between blood vessel and tissue), that helps to get rid of “waste” in the brain, such as Amyloid protein. Interestingly, this almost exclusively occurs during sleep – why this is the case is yet to be elucidated. Normal diffusion of these waste products would lead to very inefficient clearance and is catastrophic for us. Overload of these waste products ultimately leads to neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. This explains why there is the need to sleep, and why there is a strong link between people suffering from sleep deprivation and developing neurodegenerative diseases in later life. Overall, I found this talk very interesting and this is very well something I could find myself doing after my PhD.
The Edinburgh talks
There was neurosychology Prof. Sharon Abrahams, who developed a novel assessment of cognitive behaviour tailored to patients with MND, and Prof. Brian Walker from the Centre for Cardiovascular Science, who found a strategy for diminishing the cognitive and body weight side effects of glucocorticoid treatments by studying the detailed molecular actions in different organs (substituting cortisol at the moment leads to Cushing’s syndrome, which usually leads to obesity and depression, not a very nice state to be in). Prof. David Wyllie explained how his lab is exploring synaptic mechanisms of hypersensitivities in Fragile X syndrome, a form of autism.
Dr. Nicolas Chevalier explained something very new to me – how children make sense of their environment, and how the response to “cues” in the enviroment changes in childhood and development; basically, young children just sometimes don’t know what we want from them, e.g. to get them to clean their room, we might need to make very explicit demands whereas as they get older, a strict parental glare might suffice. Adapting the ways to present cues to children might make it easier for them to understand and learn. Looking at Prions, Dr. Abigail Diak from the Roslin Institute gave an introduction into her work and the steps we need to take in order to battle seemingly disappeared prion disorders such as Creutzfeld-Jakob (which is very scary!) – the battle is not won yet and new infections are on the rise. Autophagy in brain cancer (namely glioblastoma, a very nasty and deadly form of it) was the topic of Dr. Noor Gammoh‘s talk, and I learned a lot from this talk as well: acutely blocking “autophagy”, the removal of old organelles in the cells, via specific pathways might help to battle this type of cancer and looks like a promising strategy – at least in the lab (fingers crossed!). Dr. Gedi Luksys is developing a computational model to study how stress and other factors might influence a learning and memory, and while the details and mathematics were a bit beyond me, it was quite an interesting talk of what computers can do. Dr. Tom Wishart told us about his exploration of the synaptic proteome and its destabilisation in age.
The 3 minute student talks, that were introduced last year, were consistently of very high standard, and I believe they have improved since last year! Dr. Thomas Bak, which will also be a speaker at this year’s Edinburgh Pint of Science, gave a fascinating talk about bilingualism and cognitive reserve (meaning bilingual people experience less or later decline in cognitive functions). Prof. Josef Priller, who will join the University of Edinburgh in Autumn 2017, explained his work on the microglia and why the brain is not as immune privileged as thought.
Like last year, I also presented a poster this year, although on a different aspect of my project. Sadly, I did not receive as much interest as last year, but I believe the layout of the different poster rooms was not ideal. Overall, there were lots of interesting posters though and poster prize money was to be won (which I sadly didn’t).