CHICAGO—The Society for Neuroscience, like Woodstock, just marked its 40th birthday. Undoubtedly, some of the attendees at the original Aquarian countercultural assemblage, ended up as full professors of experimental psychology, psychiatry and neurobiology, and now frequent the society’s annual event that regularly draws more than 30,000 people.
Woodstock was an approach to exploration of inner space that ran up quickly against its own limitations. Neuroscience still has a lot more to offer. The society’s membership, which just broke 40,000, attracts the best and the brightest of new scientific talent—and one glance at the crowds in the massive conference centers rented for the annual gathering of "neuro tribes" reveals that the field is not a boys’ club like many pursuits in engineering.
I often attend the meeting to get ideas for articles that I can commission from experts or write myself. The eclecticism of brain studies is almost as varied as the quadrillions of synapses that inhabit our skulls.
To get to the vast section where thousands of posters on unpublished research are presented, I walk past vendors of brain peptides that cause sleep or Alzheimer’s. On the way I can buy any conceivable variety of rat food and little plastic huts, where transgenic animals imbued with genes that turn them into scared-y rats can go to hide. (The Woodstock spirit is not totally lost. At one point, a young post-doc tries to press upon me a printed invitation to an event with free wine and food, in exchange for listening to a talk on RNA-interference and gene expression or else polymerase chain reaction reagents or else cellular imaging techniques. I can take my pick.)
In the endless presentation areas, I pass a poster on altered sexual behaviors in prokineticin knockout females. (Ah, the attractions of rodents missing a gene.) Down aisle FF, researchers from the University of Illinois display a poster on a study that demonstrates that some voters do not make educated guesses, but actually create false memories, indistinguishable from real ones, about what positions a candidate may hold, e.g. some Republican is against gun control when, in fact, he has never actually taken a stand on the issue.
In conference sessions, researchers describe their work to others. Some research suggests that the Mozart Effect is real, in a way. Musicians, it turns out, can hear speech in noisy environments better than those who don’t play an instrument, perhaps a clue of how to treat learning disabilities, a boon, no doubt, for piano teachers hit by the recession. Another researcher describes using a light signal to activate sets of neurons to determine the minimum number needed to retrieve a stored memory. Yet another forwards the hypothesis that some types of autism may be driven by faulty genes that control the functioning of synapses. The list of topics could fill a phone book thick enough to accommodate the population of Mumbai. And there is enough work in the field to keep it energized for another 40 years and beyond.
Image: An artist’s representation of a neuron, with parts labeled. Credit: Wikipedia