Of Schemes and Memes

NPG Goes Neuro! #NPGsfn11

Neuroscience 2011 is this year’s major event for neuroscientists from around the world. Organised by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), the event took place from November 12th – 16th, in Washington, DC. To tie in with this, some of the attendees have been sharing their observations from the event in an exclusive series of guest posts on NPG’s Neuroscience blog, Action Potential. Here we share a round-up of some of the #NPGsfn11 guest posts.

Action Potential’s editor, Noah Gray, has also created a Google + circle listing the guest bloggers, so do check it out and join in the discussion.

Electric Brain fail?

Find out why the SfN conference is the nerd Disneyland of Bradley Voytek, a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Department of Neurology at the University of California.

In his guest post, he takes us on a journey, looking back at how much knowledge we have gained in the past 50 years and considers how much further we have to go.


He introduces us to the Electric Brain, a giant electrified model of the human brain’s control designed in 1961. He juxtaposes simplified models from the past of entire brain regions, with modern attempts to model whole neurons, made possible by advancements in computational power:

How do the latest and greatest theories and findings on display at SfN compare to the Electric Brain? One would like to think that, with this much brain power (har, har), surely we must be close to “understanding the brain” (whatever that might mean.) Although any model of the human brain feels like an act of hubris, what good are countless scientific facts without an integrated model or framework in which to test them?

Be afraid!

Tara LeGates, a Ph.D. candidate in the Cellular, Molecular, Developmental Biology, and Biophysics Program at Johns Hopkins University, discusses Andreas Lüthi’s lecture, by Andreas Lüthi Defining the Neuronal Circuitry of Fear. One of the ways Lüthi’s group study fear is by auditory fear conditioning in mice:

This is a form of classical conditioning where an auditory stimulus (tone) is paired with footshock, which will elicit fear behavior (freezing). Eventually, providing the tone alone will elicit this fear response. If the tone is continuously presenting with no shock, the fear behavior can be extinguished, considered a separate learning experience. Think about it this way: Let’s say your boss jingles his or her keys. Normally, that’s not very threatening right? Well, now s/he comes into the lab, jingling those keys and yelling indiscriminately. Perhaps this becomes a regular occurrence. Eventually, just the sound of those keys, as s/he approaches the lab, will have you running for the cold room for cover. Classical conditioning.

Using a variety of genetic and electrophysiological techniques, Lüthi’s group is able to examine the role of the amygdala circuitry (the almond-shaped groups of nuclei located deep within the medial temporal lobes of the brain) in fear conditioning.


A section through the central nucleus of the amygdala, stained with antibodies against three markers that distinguish largely non-overlapping populations of neurons.

Continuing reading her post for more details on fear conditioning.

Bad habits

Neurobiologist Björn Brembs details in his guest post what he learnt from a series of poster presentations at the SfN conference on habit forming. One of the models used in neuroscience research to mimic the process of skill learning, is habit formation. Animals such as rats or mice are trained in a specific task until it becomes so automated that their behaviour becomes difficult to change. The inability to change behaviour which is associated with habit formation is also an important paradigm when modelling drug addiction. Björn elaborates:

Habit formation in animal models is usually induced by over-training them. For instance, in one poster from the first session of this year’s Society for Neuroscience conference, Smith and Graybiel trained rats in a T-Maze: following a given auditory cue, the animals had to go either left or right for a reward. Before a habit is formed, i.e., in the early phase of the experiment, the behavior is still flexible (termed ‘goal-directed.’) This is tested by devaluing the reward the animals receive for choosing the correct arm of the T-maze. For instance, if turning right after tone A is rewarded with water and turning left after tone B is rewarded with food, animals are more likely to make more mistakes when the ‘water cue’ is given, if they were sated with water immediately before testing in the maze.

The Super Agers

After being inspired by a poster session at the SfN conference, Sandra Upson, the managing Editor at Scientific American Mind, considers in her guest "post ":http://blogs.nature.com/nn/actionpotential/2011/11/for_super_agers_bodies_age_as.html how the bodies of “Super Agers,” or “octogenarians,” may be aging and their hair may be thinning, but their brains stay young:


The 48 octogenarians in the Northwestern University Super Aging Project were selected for having met or bested the average performance of a 50- or 60-year old on standard tests of recall. Magnetic resonance imaging scans of their brains corroborate their superior abilities: not only do super agers act the same as their younger counterparts, their brains look the same. “To see no change whatsoever was really surprising,” says Theresa Harrison, one of the researchers who presented preliminary findings from the project at a poster session at the 2011 Society for Neuroscience conference.


Gary Stix," writer and senior editor at Scientific American, discusses in Big ‘O’ Studies, indications that more activity exists in the brains of women during “self-stimulation” to orgasm, than anything short of an epileptic seizure. Gary explains that Barry Komisaruk, a Rutgers University psychology professor, and his team have spliced together a series of fMRI images to make a movie known as a “brain symphony” and this video proved popular at one of the poster sessions at SfN 2011:

orgasm image.jpg

A still from the “Brain Symphony” movie, courtesy of Dr.Barry Komisaruk.

The post explains in more detail Komisaruk’s research and how understanding the normal physiology of orgasm might help address the problem of anorgasmia, the inability to achieve climax.


On Saturday night, one of the many SfN satellite events taking place was, Career Development Topics: A Mentoring and Networking Event. Held at the Washington Convention Center, the event was organized by the Society’s Professional Development Committee to provide mentoring opportunities and professional guidance to neuroscientists across all educational levels. Paola Giusti Rodriguez, who completed her PhD at Harvard University in the Spring of 2011, attended the event:

The mentoring event was well attended (not an easy task considering that it took place on a Saturday night) and interest seemed to be wide-ranging, as revealed by the mostly full tables. At table #19, where I sat as one of two mentors on the “Science Policy: Fellowships, Careers and Advocacy” sub-topic, we had a good showing. It was evident there was a great deal of interest in science policy among our table hoppers, and that many had already heard about some of the most well-known science policy fellowship programs, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellowships and the National Academies’ Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship.

Find out more about Paola’s experience at this mentoring event, in her post.

Finally, be warned, conference attendees, Dr Becca WAS judging you……..!


For more coverage on the SfN conference, do check out Scientific American’s The Scicurious Brain

Below, you can also find other Neuroblogs which have been covering the conference:


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