As the venerable neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran once remarked, ‘How can a three-pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity, and even question its own place in the cosmos?’ Whatever you think of neuroscience, the mystery and allure of the brain continues to inspire many in the search for answers. Undeniably, many of the answers are yet to be found, but the journey from early beginnings has celebrated many successes and marked key developments.
On Saturday 2nd March, to mark some of these developments, over seventy delegates gathered to participate in the third annual conference, entitled ‘The Brain in Flux.’ Hosted by the Sheffield Neuroscience Society, the conference sought to explore key ideas on the topics of brain plasticity, memory and sleep. The choice to name the conference ‘The Brain in Flux’ was not without reason. Brain plasticity, coined the ‘malleable brain’, has in recent years gripped the neuroscience community. Recent studies have provided important insights into the changing nature of neural circuits that drive our associative memory and acquisition of motor behaviour.
Taking the theme of brain plasticity, each of the keynote speakers gave illuminating talks on their field of research and its relevance to the topic of brain plasticity. In the field of sleep, Dr Gary Dennis, a consultant sleep neurologist, captured the importance of sleep as a protective element against non-communicable diseases, citing the positive contribution of sleep to brain plasticity. His talk certainly stirred many of us to rethink our sleeping habits and lifestyle choices!
Moving from the field of sleep to the intriguing world of memory & attention, Dr Paresh Malhotra from Imperial College London, fascinated the audience with his research into spatial neglect syndrome in the aftermath of stroke. Patients with spatial neglect characteristically have a disorder of attention whereby they fail to orientate, to report or response to stimuli on the opposite side of their brain injury. Dr Malhotra revealed that spatial neglect can be modulated by motivational factors, and this motivation is mediated by dopaminergic pathways damaged in stroke.
During the lunch break, delegates were given the opportunity to view posters submitted by students from across the UK. These students had been selected by the society to present their research to a panel of judges. The breadth of the student research on display was inspiring and each of the students gave noteworthy explanations of their aims and outcomes of research. It was also heartening to see delegates from different disciplines and stages of their education networking and sharing experiences.
As the day was dedicated to the fields of neurology and neuroscience, Dr Gavin Clowry from Newcastle University and Dr Gerald Finnerty from King’s College London were invited to give keynote addresses on pre-clinical research. Dr Clowry sought to transport the audience to the early development of the brain, posing the audience the question of ‘Why early interventions are needed to treat cerebral palsy?’ Many of the audience members remarked after Dr Clowry’s talk on how brain plasticity could be harnessed for therapeutic means. Building on this notion of brain plasticity as a therapeutic intervention, Dr Finnerty showcased research in rodents that examined the potential of boosting rewiring in the brain by removing the molecular brakes that regulate the process of rewiring.
Before the conclusion of the conference, the audience got the chance to attend workshops on some novel ideas being tested by researchers in sleep and memory. A standout from the workshop sessions was the use of wearable technology as a sleep monitoring tool in psychosis. This workshop was run by Dr Nicholas Meyer, a consultant psychiatrist at King’s College London. Quality of sleep for a patient with psychosis has been evidenced as a good evaluative criterion for relapse in their condition. The hope from the sleep monitoring trial was that the relapse of a patient’s condition could be predicted from their sleep pattern and thus aid in relapse prevention. This workshop was well received, providing the opportunity to try on the sleep sensor watches and witness a live demonstration of the data being analysed.
In all four of the keynote addresses and workshops, delegates were treated to cutting-edge developments in neurology and neuroscience. From the conversations that took place afterwards, most delegates felt they had been inspired to continue their interest and get involved within neuroscientific research. Thank you to all those who came to attend and for the sponsors who made the day happen.