For the second year in a row I’ve had the chance to attend and write about the UCL Neuroscience Symposium. Whether you just came back from FENS and are struggling to remember what did even happen during the symposium or whether you simply would like a glance on what it is like when a big portion of the neuroscience community in London gathers in the same hall, you’ve come to the right place. Read on for my take on this year’s event or, if you are feeling nostalgic, check out the 2017 UCL Neuroscience Symposium.
On Friday 22nd of June, just under 800 researchers gathered at the Institute of Education to celebrate the 9th edition of the UCL Neuroscience Symposium. With two fantastic keynote speakers, six talks by UCL group leaders, and 129 posters spread across three sessions, the event was once again a big success that marked the culmination of another impressive year for the UCL Neuroscience Domain.
The morning began with Dr Caswell Barry welcoming everyone and giving a brief overview of the day before proceeding to introduce the first speaker of the meeting: Prof Daniel Wolpert from Columbia University, who presented his work on “Probabilistic Models of Sensorimotor Control”. Prof Wolpert shared how his lab uses machine learning and Bayes theory to investigate human movement control, how we learn to manipulate tools, and what cognitive processes underlie decision making and having a change of mind.
After the engaging Q&A session came to an end, Prof Michael Häusser introduced the winners of the Jon Driver Prize, awarded to outstanding young neuroscientists from UCL for their work during their PhD. This year’s awardees were Andrea Banino, for his work on “Neuroscience and AI: modelling the brain using deep neural networks”, and Ruben Duque do Vale, for his research on “Spatial navigation during escape behaviours in mice”, who both had the chance to present their work to the audience.
Once we had all made the most out of the chance to top up our caffeine levels and check out the first posters of the day, Prof Sarah-Jayne Blakemore took over to chair the first round of talks by UCL speakers. Prof Sarah Tabrizi shared the very promising results of a clinical trial in humans using antisense oligonucleotide therapy for Huntington’s disease, showing that the drug was well tolerated and achieved a dose-dependent reduction of the mutant protein that causes the disease. Next to speak was Prof Chris Brewin on the puzzle of traumatic memories and on recent efforts towards understanding memory impairment in post-traumatic stress disorder. Without entirely leaving the realm of memory, Prof Tim Behrens gave an account of how the hippocampus “replays” sequences of events to consolidate memories and of their recent experiments investigating this phenomenon in humans.
Before breaking for lunch, Prof Blakemore introduced the recipients of the Early Career Neuroscience Prize and their respective talks. In the Junior category, Dr Anna Krasnow presented her PhD work on how calcium transients in oligodendrocytes control the process of myelination in zebrafish; and in the Advanced category, Dr Rebecca Lawson presented her research on the probabilistic brain in autism and how adults with autism overestimate the volatility of the sensory environment.
During the lunch break, attendees had the opportunity to continue discussing science with the poster presenters and to attend a workshop by Coherent on new laser sources for advanced optical brain imaging. Not much time elapsed before having to go back to the auditorium, where Prof Giampietro Schiavo chaired the next session of talks. Prof Mairead MacSweeney gave a thought-provoking talk on how investigating sign language and deafness can reveal new insights about how the brain processes language, and Dr Andrew MacAskill delivered a fantastic presentation on how his lab is dissecting cell-type specific circuitry in the ventral hippocampus, from anatomy and projection-specific electrophysiology to RNA sequencing, and up to its role in behaviour. The last talk of the session came from Dr Arantza Barrios and transported us to the love life of the nematode C. elegans, and to the role of two newly discovered pairs of neurons in the circuitry underlying sex differences in their mating behaviour.
Prof Trevor Smart took the stage to chair the last session of the day and to introduce the second keynote speaker: Dr Matt Botvinick from DeepMind. Dr Botvinick gave an overview of the recent developments in artificial neural networks and discussed their research on meta-reinforcement learning in artificial networks and on prefrontal cortex as a versatile learning system. After several questions and one final round of applause, the time had come for Prof Smart to reveal the winners of the coveted Poster Prize: this year Philip Coen was awarded the Best Poster Prize, and Nathaniel Hafford Tear received the Runner-up Prize. Following the final closing remarks, the delegates smoothly vacated the auditorium to cheerfully end the event with the traditional wine reception, where animated conversations ignite new ideas and collaborations that may become a central part of the next iteration of the UCL Neuroscience Symposium.
Massive thanks to Marta Huelin and Harsha Gurnani for their comments on the initial version of the post. I would also like to thank Candice Lewis for reaching out and offering me the chance to write about this event once again. This text has been published in the UCL Events Blog and has been listed in the UCL Neuroscience Domain website.