Thousands of neuroscientists are converging on San Diego this week to trade insights on what makes the brain tick, how to find out, and how to make it better. Jim Giles reports back from the Society for Neuroscience's 34th annual meeting, where organizers
Day 3: On the fringe
The attendence estimates are now being put at 30,000, down from 36,000, and whether or not it is the biggest science conference in the world - for a single subject, that is - is still undecided. Looks like I'll be leaving before anyone works it out.
Amongst these thousands, there's lots of brilliant scientists here, but I'd like to put in a word for a lower-profile group: the fringe researchers. The people that don't have queues outside the door when they talk. The ones that put up posters that get ignored. The people behind the studies that, when you hear the details, prompt the question: "how did that get funded?"
A stroll around this conference proves that crazy-sounding research is often actually good science. Take the team that looked at actors' moods. The subjects, drawn from the world of experimental theatre, willed themselves into a smiley or glum frame of mind, while expensive equipment monitored their brain states. Surely this is IgNobel territory?
But the researchers were actually trying to turn a fundamental neuroscience paradigm on its head. Rather than look at how different substances affect mood, they wanted to know whether people could purposely alter their own brain chemistry.
The answer is yes -- deliberately thinking happy thoughts ramps up levels of the molecules that make us feel good. Actors were used because it was assumed they were used to being told to adjust to a new frame of mind. The result, which the researchers say is the first of its kind, has already been accepted for review by a prestigious journal.
But what about the team that proved -- wait for it -- that there isn't much caffeine in decaffeinated coffee. Isn't that (a) not neuroscience, (b) obvious and (c) a waste of tax-payers' money? Well not quite. It turns out that a couple of cups of decaff can contain enough caffeine for the drug to have a detectable physiological effect - some of it on the brain. If your doctor has warned you off caffeine for health reasons, decaff may not as safe as you'd think.
That's not to say that all the wacky stuff makes sense on close inspection. I read the abstract for one poster, talked to neuroscientists about it, and I'm still none the wiser. So while I'm prepared to accept that someone out there knows why it's useful stuff, in the meantime I'd like to draw the attention of the IgNobel jury to the study which claims to be the "first to measure brain electrical activity in contemplative nuns during a mystical state".
Day 2: Mix and mingle
Still no confirmation of whether or not this is the biggest scientific meeting in the world, but it could certainly make the case for being the most sociable. Every bar in town seems to be packed with merry neuroscientists. Beach houses are booked for parties. Boats in the harbour are booked for parties. It feels like a massive freshers week, but with a much higher quality of conversation.
This is my first neuroscience conference, but old hands say it's business as usual. That would explain why I've already bumped into several couples who met at previous years' meetings. The pace also seems to be taking it toll: I saw a couple of people asleep in the conference corridors today.
There is, however, a certain hierarchy to the partying. The grand old men and women of neuroscience were lunching in plush surroundings today, at a meeting of former presidents of the society. Other parties seem to be reserved for rising stars. One reveller complained of getting nasty looks from principle investigators at one such do; they thought - incorrectly as it turns out - that she was a mere grad student.
And then there are the bashes that no one will say no to - the ones where the drinks are paid for by someone else, like a journal or research institute. Whether these sponsors get value for their investment in fizzy white wine and canapés is an open question.
There certainly is a lot of mixing going on, at any rate - of drinks and people. Along with the social connections, that's bound to spur more than a few academic partnerships too.
Day 1: Home runs and health scares
At the end of the first full day, we've been exposed to plenty of top-notch science and quite a few arguments about baseball. The Boston Red Sox have made it to the World Series and, since Boston is arguably the science capital of the United States, many speakers here in San Diego took time out to give the city a nod.
Susumu Tonegawa, an eminent immunologist-turned-neuroscientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, has more right to do so than most. He was invited to pitch the first ball of a game for the Red Sox this May. He clearly enjoyed taunting fellow speaker Eric Kandel; Boston beat New York, Kandel's team, to reach the World Series. It's nice to see two Nobel laureates bring the world's biggest scientific meeting to a halt to argue about baseball.
But baseball became a minor issue when the Presidential Special Lecture rolled round. Such events can be pretty bland, but this year's speaker, Pasko Rakic, was anything but dull. He used his speech to present unpublished data showing that ultrasound can disrupt the neural development of unborn mice. Rakic said the risk to human fetuses needs to be studied in the light of the new data - something he has funding to do.
A fascinating and frightening find - if the doses involved are relevant to humans. Sadly it's impossible to tell from Rakic's speech today whether it is or isn't, and until the data is actually published, it will be hard to scrutinize the facts. Rakic is apparently planning to submit his findings to a journal in the near future. But, in the meantime, it's not difficult to guess what line much of the media will take with his remarks. Anyone for a health scare?
Day 1: Biggest ever??
Records are being broken - we think. There are some 36,000 people crowding the halls at this meeting; that's bigger than last year, and probably - no one is sure - makes this the biggest scientific meeting ever held.