Thursday, October 18, 2012

SFN 2012 Recap

This past week I was at the largest annual neuroscientific gathering in the world, where 28,000 people converged in one place to talk about brains.  The Society for Neuroscience meeting was held in New Orleans and man was it a fun trip this year.  Okay it did help that a) New Orleans is an absolutely amazing city that I will never get tired of going back to, b) we got to enjoy a little schadenfreude as the internet wrought revenge on a famous scientist who let his sexism show, c) Voytek and I had a very successful guerilla science campaign, and d) I got to do my first press conference which has since been picked up and mis-reported by CNN's blog.

Oh, and Ned the Neuron was a nice, warm and fuzzy presence at the conference and also at the late night bars.

But beyond that, the science was exceptionally good this year.  Here are some of the highlights that I caught.

-- Larry Abbott, perhaps one of the best theoretical neuroscientists alive, gave a fantastic lecture on how (counter-intuitively) unstructured networks lead to the best decoding. Basically it turns out that if you take a set of connections, in his case the olfactory system of the fly, then having a completely random wiring pattern actually makes it easier to decode the input stimulus.  Now I haven't read the paper, so I'm not 100% sure I can say why this works, but it does provide some interesting food for thought.  He also went on to present Mark Churchland's work on the subject which I'm saving for a later post (I have always been a big fan of Mark's work and I think he's onto something really amazing with his latest set of studies).

-- Contrary to some pretty vocal (and sometimes warranted) criticism, the Human Connectome Project gave a preview of some of its preliminary data and I gotta say... it looks incredible!  Their diffusion imaging data is hands down the best I've seen so far and they're already letting people download it to use in their research.  Have already registered and feel like a kid in the candy store.

-- Although I missed this talk at a pre-conference workshop, I hear that Philip Sabe's lab (my first post-doc adviser) has basically done the first step towards building The Matrix!  His graduate student, Maria Dadarlat, had some fantastic work where she continually pair patterns of stimulation in the monkey brain with real visual stimuli during a motor control task.  The monkey is trained to use this complex pattern of moving dot fields on a computer display to figure out how to navigate his arm around a workspace. After training, Maria can turn off the real visual stimulus (i.e., what the monkey sees) and the monkey uses the brain stimulation signals to guide his arm with as much accuracy as if he was actually seeing the visual stimulus.  Expect to hear big things when this comes out in press.

-- The optogenetics footprint was the largest I've seen this year. Some really cool work by several labs showing extensions into the non-human primates (wonder how long until it's used in humans for something) and significantly improved bandwidth.  This technology still boggles my mind, although I'm starting to appreciate some of the criticisms from the traditional physiology side of the table.

-- I also learned a lot about the in's-and-out's of NSF funding priorities for the near future thanks to some really helpful program officers and a great presentation on how to navigate the NSF grant process.  I literally couldn't write my notes fast enough.  All I can say is, emphasize novel and unique data sharing ideas as much as you can in your next set of applications...

Okay, I have many many more notes from visiting posters that I wont blather on about, but they will serve as fodder for future posts.  Just wanted to put these up there for anyone interested before I'm reduced to a coma from exhaustion.

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