By Niall Duncan
The rich scientific program enjoyed each year at the OHBM conference is the product of persistent hard work by the program committee. They take the raw material of the abstracts and proposals submitted by scientists all over the world and craft it into the finely polished end result that we all see. That means deciding which symposia get the green light, which abstracts become oral presentations and which posters only, and which researchers will be given the distinction of presenting their work in a keynote address.
This year the committee was chaired by Prof. Guillén Fernandez of the Donders Institute. We met with him to find out how the process went this year, to learn about his scientific path, and to hear his thoughts about the brain and how we study it.
Niall Duncan (ND): Professor Fernandez, welcome. You’re the program chair this year. In that process were there any particular unexpected challenges that came up? Any surprises?
Guillén Fernández (GF): There’s a pretty regular operation that you do every year. You get all the abstracts, the proposals for the keynotes, and so forth, and then you get together the program committee who meet in person and by teleconference. Then we just put together a nice program that fits the interesting topics together while considering some factors of diversity of gender and geography. Sometimes there is a surprise like a keynote is not available, so then you have to look for another one - that sometimes makes the balancing out in the end difficult. We were also interested to get certain topics that are currently of particular interest, large cohort studies, for example, into the program. It was all done quite smoothly.
ND: You started out as a medical doctor and then made the switch to what we could call basic science. Why did you make that switch?
GF: I actually started doing science while in med school, and that continued throughout my residency as a neurologist. At that time I initially did electrophysiology, then later also neuroimaging. It was hard to see how I could use these methods in my clinical practice - there was a gap in understanding. That was something that interested me so I worked on it and then you’re automatically away from clinically applied science, from science that is useful for clinical application.
A second point was that I liked clinical work and scientific research but I saw that it was difficult to do both at a good level. To be a good clinician and a good scientist is just difficult at the same time. Some people are able but I thought it was a stretch for me. I wanted to avoid being a kind of mediocre clinician and a good scientist, or vice versa, so then I decided to go for science only. Then there was this position at the Donders which I got and so the decision was made.
ND: And the rest was history... So, starting out as a physician, and then moving into brain science only, do you think that background has shaped the way that you think about the brain and how to study it?
GF: Yes, I think the disadvantage is that at med school and residency you are not that well trained in carrying out science. I think there is a deficit which you have to compensate for. But, on the other hand, as a clinician you have a very good overview of all kinds of things. You are quite pragmatic in your approach and I think you can more easily see the relevance of things sometimes. So, if you are too theoretical, too conceptual, then I sometimes in interactions with colleagues have the idea that it’s easier for physicians to be pragmatic in some aspects.
ND: A lot of your research has focussed on stress – both current stress and developmental stress. What was it that lead you into that area of study?
GF: I worked on, and my work is still quite focussed on, memory. I’m interested in states where memory formation - establishing a new memory trace, or retrieving that or stabilisation of it - is either impaired or improved. Stressful states are quite unique in the sense that they improve memory formation and subsequent stabilisation, but impair retrieval. And that’s a nice approach.
The second point is that I think neuroscience, and in particular neuroimaging, can bring something to understanding mental disorders, and I’m quite interested in why and how traumatic experiences are so well remembered that the memories become maladaptive to the individual. That is something about mental disorders that I am in the long term interested to understand more about. I’m trained as a neurologist but now my research might be more relevant for psychiatry. That’s something that I developed and is the reason why I research the effect of acute stress on memory formation and retrieval.
Developmentally, the human brain - the brain in general - is a very plastic organ and therefore is shaped by the experiences one has. These might make the brain later on more susceptible to, for example, negative memories. This memory bias and how that develops over the lifetime is something I am interested in.
ND: You’ve published many great papers but do you have a favourite paper or research project?
GF: I think that with our stress work there are some quite different studies that fit together nicely. There we have developed a model - that we also described in a review paper - that I think is particularly nice because we manipulated cortisol, we manipulated norepinephrine, and even with the genetic studies it all fitted together nicely. That makes the model quite nice and changed the perception, in my view, of the effect of cortisol in the brain. It’s usually just the bad boy but if I understand the more recent literature well then it appears to be that it is quite helpful in the acute state to get back to a normal state. So that’s more a dampening and normalisation function of cortisol, which is a different view. If you look into the literature twenty years ago then it’s always the bad boy. In the chronic state it probably still is, but in the acute not. That’s the most interesting.
ND: Similarly, you’ve taken what could be called emotions and applied it to what some people might call a cognitive function in memory. Do I understand that correctly, and if that interaction between emotions and cognition is correct what do you think that tells us about how the brain works?
GF: Sometimes I have trouble distinguishing between what an emotion is and what a cognition is. Sometimes they might be more or less the same. I think that there are states in the brain, for example acute stress, arousal, or threat perception, that affect a whole set of cognitive processes. We have to understand that a bit better. There are the second by second cognitive processes that are going on, the computations, and there’s more slowly modulated states that go rather in minutes, and sometimes also more rapidly. Trying to understand the interaction between these is something we are not doing often. We are usually lucky, we are happy, that we can kind of get something done on just the cognition, or just on the state, and I think we have to look more into that interaction. These states have different timescales and different spatial distributions. In neuromodulatory terms they are processes from norepinephrine, or serotonin or dopamine, that have an effect all over the brain. We have to capture these slowly modulated states in the brain and how they affect specific processes.
ND: And finally, if you were the program chair in five years time, which topics do you think will be the most exciting for everyone?
GF: Predictions are difficult! I can at least express my hope, whether it will be fulfilled in five years I don’t know. I hope that we will have bigger systematic studies, on the one hand. Not only them as I hope we will also keep the small hypothesis testing experiments, but at the same time we should have larger systematic studies that go after more complex interactions between the different cognitive levels, or emotions and cognitions, the different brain states, in a more systematic way. I think that will be there.
I think that we will still see new methods for analysis. We are already getting to see machine learning and artificial intelligence used for data analysis. I think it will help us with more complex patterns that we are currently having difficulties to grasp. And, probably not in five years but hopefully soon, we will get useful biomarkers from neuroimaging in mental disorders, so that they are really informative for diagnostics, for treatment selection or prediction. These I hope for in five years.
ND: Here’s hoping! Dr. Fernandez, thank you very much for your time!
By Claude Bajada, Emiliano Ricciardi, Pietro Pietrini and the Rome LOC
As you might know, the 25th OHBM Congress will come back to Italy and this time we will be in Rome. The capital and the largest city of Italy, Rome is one of the most visited cities in the world and is famous for its extensive, rich history. Delegates will travel from all corners of the world, all nooks and crannies to visit the eternal city for a week of neural cartography.
The 25th anniversary meeting will feature the most up to date research in the field of neuroimaging, using multimodal data and cutting edge analysis techniques with an increasingly strong focus upon machine learning and ‘big data’ approaches. OHBM also proudly promotes an increasingly open science environment.
The conference caters for all levels of researchers. This includes educational sessions for PhD students, postdocs and early career researchers, as well as the annual OHBM Hackathon, now a staple event that welcomes both new and established open science enthusiasts.
Given its long tradition in neuroscience, neurophysiology and psychology, Italy is well qualified to host such an important gathering of scientists who come from every corner of the globe. Indeed, it was the conclusion of Italian physiologist Angelo Mosso that brain circulation changes selectively with neural activity that is the basis of the powerful methodologies that we now employ to explore neural correlates of mental function. Currently, Italy has a rapidly expanding neuroimaging community distributed across the whole country and the 2019 Local Organizing Committee gathers together ‘brain mappers’ from the major Italian research centers, covering all methodological approaches of neuroimaging.
Rome was called “the Eternal City” by the ancient Romans, first of all because they believed that no matter what happened in the rest of the world, the city of Rome would always remain standing, and also because when the Roman Empire was new, Rome was already very old! Rome's history spans over two and half thousand years. During this time it transformed from a small Latin village to the center of a vast empire, through the founding of Catholicism, the Italian Renaissance and into the capital of today's Italy.
The historic center of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with wonderful palaces, thousand-year-old churches, Romantic ruins, opulent monuments, ornate statues and graceful fountains. Rome has a rich historical heritage and cosmopolitan atmosphere, making it one of Europe's and the world's most famous, influential and beautiful capitals.
Today, Rome has a growing nightlife scene and is also seen as a shopping haven, being regarded as one of the fashion capitals of the world. Modern Rome is captivating with its heady mix of haunting ruins, awe-inspiring art and a vibrant street life.
There are so many things to do and places to visit that your week in Rome will be intense!
Ancient Rome aficionados cannot miss the great Colosseum, the Circus Maximus and the Roman Forum. Those who would like to discover Baroque Rome have to visit Piazza Navona with its great fountains and the world-wide famous Fontana di Trevi.
You cannot leave Rome without visiting the Vatican City with its majestic museums, Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.
And what about the beautiful gardens of Villa Borghese? A great opportunity to switch-off and take a stroll ending your visit with the entrance at the Borghese gallery Museum!
Then you can spend a great time shopping in the city center; you can go to Via del Corso for the major brands, to Via Condotti for the luxury brands and to Via del Boschetto for the independent boutiques. And it goes without saying, you cannot have shopping in Rome if you don’t experience one of the weekly markets in the city!
Italians, and Romans, often boast that their food is the greatest in the world; from the most known and iconic Italian foods, as pizza or ice-cream, to the more local dishes as “pasta all’amatriciana” or “supplì” or “maritozzi con la panna”… are you curious? We will not tell you what they are because you have to come and taste them to discover how great could be the real Roman food!
Reaching us is very easy. The Leonardo Da Vinci international airport operates daily flights to over 300 destinations throughout the world. The airport is also well connected to Rome's city center. There is the Leonardo Express, a train exclusively for airport passengers to/from Rome Termini railway station, leaving every 15 minutes with a journey time of 32 minutes.
The conference will be held at Auditorium Parco della Musica, a big multi-functional art complex designed by the most important Italian Archistar, Renzo Piano, and located in the heart of Rome.
We encourage you to submit your abstracts as soon as possible (the deadline is 11:59pm EST Wednesday, December 19). and what more can we say except… see you in Rome!!
For even more information, visit Rome’s official tourism website: http://www.turismoroma.it/?lang=en
By Ekaterina Dobryakova
Shubigi Rao, the Singapore-based artist whose works were presented at the OHBM 2018, grew up surrounded by science. As a child, she owned and was fascinated by rare books from the 17th-20th centuries that explored science and natural history. Neuroscience has always mesmerized her --- something she shares with brain mappers. Now Shubigi is a self-taught neuroscientist, with a neuroscience theory under her belt and art installations that often depict primordial ocean creatures with a complex central nervous system that are also reminiscent of sprouting dendrites and stained neurons.
We reached out to Shubigi Rao to get a behind-the-scenes look at her artistic thought processes:
Ekaterina Dobryakova (ED): You use many different mediums in your artwork and installations. Do you have a favorite technique and art form?
Shubigi Rao (SR): This is a great question - the reason I have employed diverse media is because for me the idea or concept is paramount, and if necessary I will teach myself a new medium or discipline if the idea demands it. This has been a lot of fun, but challenging sometimes when working with deadlines, as I don't have the luxury of getting lost in the wonders of a new form or field of knowledge. Since my current 10-year project involves the study of cultural destruction - its history and also why our species has a hostile relationship with knowledge - I've re-trained myself as a solo film-maker, and have been travelling around the world to document sites, events, people and oral histories. In terms of artistic medium I've also loved drawing (such a primal impulse and one that predates verbal/written language) and printmaking, especially intaglio and etching, but my current love is definitely film-making. I've written a fair bit about the relationships between these media, and I enjoy reading the neuroscience behind the drawing impulse etc.
ED: What was the most fascinating thing that you have learned during your studies of neuroscience?
SR: Almost everything is fascinating to me - from the very first human articulation to know the working of the brain, to studies on sea-slugs. I even find the politics behind the institutionalization of R&D and corporatization of research, and the problematics of it all to be very urgent and important issues. I'm endlessly fascinated by current work in language acquisition in infants (and in other animals as well), and interspecies communication. To answer your question with a single example, I suppose it would be my first encounter with neuroscience, when, as a young adult, I wanted to understand how we see, especially how our brain processes visual information and can make 'sense' of abstract art for instance. I still remember my sense of amazement at the decoding from V1 to the inferotemporal cortices (I was reading Hubel and Weiss, I think). Also, Cajal's studies, of course, appealed to me greatly, (as I grew up reading books on natural history and the science of the natural world from sometimes outdated books of 18th-19th century naturalists and scientists), and I devoured his work, and biographies.
ED: When I look at the works presented at OHBM 2018, I see ocean inhabitants such as the octopus and the jellyfish but these works also make me think about brain cells. What was your inspiration to create the works showcased at OHBM 2018?
SR: I've been particularly interested in interspecies communication, and also the way anthropomorphism occurs in popular retellings of scientific breakthroughs. The octopus is of course a subject of much current study and interest for its unique neuroanatomy. I've also been enjoying how it has been reimagined in popular imagination - all the way from Viktor Hugo's infamous 'devilfish' in Toilers of the Sea, which created an indelible image of the octopus as monstrous, to its appearance at the famed Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace (London) in 1851. Our human imaginations (so essential to the artist) also make us invariably anthropomorphic and often unable to extrapolate from observed animal behavior without affixing human attributes. It's also why the life cycle of 'immortal' Turritopsis dohrnii has so seized public imagination. Invertebrates have often been classed as lower life forms, yet their neurological systems are amazing - the surprisingly complex nerve nets of siphonophores, their radial symmetry.
I make my work ambiguous and open, to allow the brains of the viewer to fill in the blanks, rather than passively look at an image. I hope the viewer will enter it, get lost in it, reimagine or re-contextualize it. For OHBM, I mixed fact and fiction. I was inspired by the way the human brain attempts to understand 'alien' or radically different intelligences and neuroanatomy, and the way we confabulate those gaps. This is also because of my lifelong study of how we look at nature.
I grew up in a forest - my parents left the city and took us to live in the jungles of northern India, where we learned how to 'read' interspecies communication between prey species, for instance, so we knew when a predator was on the move by the types of alarm calls of birds, monkeys, even insects. We developed a very intuitive appreciation for the lowliest of creatures, often disregarded in conservation efforts, for instance.
It's only recently that the cause of bees have been taken up, yet one has to only read Karl von Frisch's brilliant work from 1973 on bee communication to see the incredibly complex nature of its dance and the way that communication can only occur because of a social agreement of its codes. So, the social aspects of information processing is what I unconsciously and intuitively imbibed growing up in the wild.
All these elements feed back into the way I process disparate information, make connections, and interpret - which is what eventually led to my seeking out neuroscientific studies as a youngster, despite being disallowed from studying science at a higher level because of my gender.
ED: One can say that, just as artists, researchers have to start with an idea, an inspiration, that subsequently culminates in writing of a publication or a work of art. Do you get ‘writer’s block’?
SR: Yes, I do, sometimes, but once I start I don't stop. My writer's block is often because of the sheer enormity of the subject and its associated bodies of knowledge, that I am paralyzed into being unable to decide where to begin. Of course, like most people, once I start then it's off to the races, and I work in a fever of hyper-focus to the exclusion of everything, often forgetting to eat. I recently finished 65000 words in under 10 days, after being paralyzed with indecision for 7 months. So, a very uneconomical way of working!
ED: Many thanks Shubigi!