The 2017 UCL Neuroscience Symposium

If you happen to be a neuroscientist based at UCL, chances are you have already attended or heard about the UCL Neuroscience Symposium. If for whatever reason you don’t know what I am talking about, or you couldn’t make it this year, fear not and read along for the extended version of my take on the 2017 UCL Neuroscience Symposium

On Friday June 16th, the Institute of Education welcomed over 800 researchers from the UCL Neuroscience Domain to what was bound to be an inspiring day full of opportunities to learn about and discuss the science being carried out at UCL. Now in its 8th year, the UCL Neuroscience Symposium is the perfect occasion to get acquainted with new areas of research, catch up with the latest developments of our colleagues, and even establish new lines of collaboration. A gender-balanced line up of speakers was brilliantly put together by the organising committee to deliver some of the exciting scientific breakthroughs that UCL has seen over the past year.

The event kicked off with an unplanned outdoor networking session after the fire alarm went off. Thankfully, nothing serious happened and after half an hour of lively conversations in the assembly point, the attendees made their way back to their seats. Without any further surprises, Prof. Rachael Pearson made the opening remarks and introduced the first keynote speaker, Prof. Richard Morris from the University of Edinburgh. Prof. Morris, who shared the 2016 Brain Prize, delivered a fantastic talk on “The synaptic plasticity and memory hypothesis”. He took the audience on a journey along the initial discoveries that shaped what we know about the cellular underpinnings of long-term potentiation and synaptic plasticity, the development of his synaptic tagging and capture hypothesis, and his work studying the mechanisms by which memories are generated and maintained using insightful behavioural paradigms such as his famous “water maze” and the more recent “event arena”.

Credit: Shannon Shibata-Germanos

After some very interesting questions from the public, Prof. Ray Dolan, awardee of the 2017 Brain Prize, introduced the winners of the Jon Driver Prize. Established to honour the memory of the late Prof. Jon Driver, former director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, this year’s prize was awarded to three outstanding young neuroscientists from UCL who took the stage to briefly present their work. The action moved next to the first poster session, with over 150 lab and research posters showcased in three different halls. The wide array of topics sparked many stimulating conversations and allowed PhD students, post-docs and group leaders to present and discuss their research in an amiable atmosphere. At the same time, a panel of judges took a closer look at the lab posters and set out to deliberate on who should take the poster prize back to the office.

Still in the midst of animated discussions, everyone started to slowly make it back to the lecture theatre, where Prof. Kenneth Harris was about to chair the first session of UCL speakers. Dr. Jennifer Bizley delivered a very engaging talk on “How does seeing improve listening?”, and showed us how visual cues can be decisive to discriminate between different overlapping sounds. We then heard from Prof. Jernej Ule and his work on recursive splicing of RNA from long genes in the brain and its potential implications for the biology of neurons. Dr. Tamar Makin gave next a powerful talk on “Brain plasticity in amputees”, debunking some textbook knowledge with her research on the representation of missing limbs in the brain of amputees and how to take advantage of it to advance neuroprosthetics and improve their daily life. To conclude the session, we had the chance to hear from the winners of this year’s Early Career Prize, awarded to recognise outstanding work published in the past year by early career UCL neuroscientists. Dr. Karin Tuschl was awarded the prize in the Junior Category for her work identifying the genetics of childhood-onset parkinsonism-dystonia, developing a zebrafish model to understand the aetiology of the disease in the lab, and then using the knowledge gained from basic research to translate it to a therapy back in the clinic. In the Advanced Category, Dr. Aude Marzo won the prize with her research on Wnt signalling and reversal of synapse degeneration, and its potential application to improve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Anya S. presenting her research on synaptic investigation of sleep in zebrafish. Credit: Shannon Shibata-Germanos

Lunchtime arrived and with it the second poster session and the chance to resume the conversations from the morning session. In addition to lunch and posters, there was a parallel workshop sponsored by Spectra-Physics on recent advances in two-photon and three-photon microscopy. After lunch, Prof. Maria Fitzgerald took on the chair role to introduce the second session of UCL speakers. This session started with an impressive talk by Dr. Isaac Bianco on how they are using behavioural tracking, whole-brain imaging of neuronal activity at cellular resolution and closed-loop virtual reality assays to study hunting, escape and sensorimotor processing in the larval zebrafish. Prof. Christiana Ruhrberg presented her work on the cross-talk between neural progenitors, blood vessels and microglia in the developing brain, stressing the importance of taking into consideration the different degrees of interactions if we wish to understand the process as a whole. Dr. Sergi Costafreda González closed the session with his talk on the relationship between hearing loss and risk of dementia, and the need of more funding to translate the discoveries in basic research to the clinic.

The symposium approached its finale with Prof. Trevor Smart introducing the closing keynote, delivered by Prof. Barbara Sahakian from the University of Cambridge. In her talk “Cognitive enhancement in neuropsychiatric disorders and healthy people”, she commented on how mental disorders disproportionately affect the young and how she and her team are developing new ways to assess cognitive abilities and study the effects of “smart” drugs in patients and healthy subjects. She also shared some interesting insights on the possible reasons behind healthy people using cognitive enhancing drugs and took the chance to encourage us all to engage the public with our new ideas and try to reach as many people as possible with them.

After one last question and the final round of applause, Prof. Trevor Smart pronounced the closing remarks and reflected on the highlights of the day. He then awarded the Early Career Prizes and revealed the winners of the coveted Laboratory Poster Prizes: this year’s winner was Prof. Rachael Pearson’s Lab poster on “Cell based therapies for retinal repair”, with the runner-up prize going to Prof. Sara Mole’s Lab poster on “Batten disease”. With the feeling that the day passed by way too fast, everyone headed down to the wine reception to share their views from the day, comment on their favourite talks and posters, and celebrate the scientific achievements of the year while keeping an eye on the ones that are yet to come.


I’d like to thank Ida for proofreading the final version, Shannon for the pictures, and Lalita John for giving me the opportunity to take part in the Symposium as a blogger. Credit for the cover image goes to Joanna Lau, and you should admire it in full here.

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