4 takeaways from 2019’s largest neuroscience meeting

More than 27,000 brain scientists gathered at SfN to share their latest and greatest research findings. Here are a few among many standouts.

October 29, 2019

Editor’s note: Last week, 93 researchers from the Allen Institute for Brain Science headed to Chicago for the 2019 Society for Neuroscience meeting, presenting research ranging from human brain cell types to how motion changes animals’ visual perception. We also sent our Senior Writer, Rachel Tompa, to survey the neuroscience landscape. This story describes four topics that caught her eye.

undefined2019 Society for Neuroscience meeting attendees visit the booth hosted by the Allen Institute for Brain Science 

The Society for Neuroscience’s annual gathering, commonly referred to as SfN, is so large it’s almost the size of a small city. With attendance numbers hovering near 30,000, the conference ranks as the largest academic research conference in the world.

With just five days to fit in more than 14,000 different research presentations — either in seminar or science poster format — SfN 2019 was a dizzying tour through the latest brain science findings. There’s no way one person could see any more than a tiny fraction of it all.

Many conference attendees specialize in subfields of neuroscience — motor function or Alzheimer’s disease or vision, for example. But for us generalists, picking and choosing is more difficult.

I decided to take the very scientific tack of going to talks with interesting sounding titles. A week later, these four cool areas of brain science are still on my mind:

Brain organoid technology is advancing, but they’re not quite mini-brains

Harvard University’s Paola Arlotta, Ph.D., gave a standout keynote talk that included her team’s latest findings on human brain organoids, tiny blobs of brain tissue that grow from human stem cells under the right conditions. When stem cells are prodded to turn into neurons, they will start to form miniscule clumps of tissue — each less than a quarter inch wide. Researchers hope they can use them to supplement animal model work to better understand the human brain and develop new treatments.

But Arlotta and other presenters at the meeting also emphasized how different organoids are from real brains. Arnold Kriegstein, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, presented his team’s research sifting through the different types of brain cells that develop in organoids. They found that organoid brain cells have “confused” identities and show signs from stress from their laboratory growing conditions. 

Although these organoids are sometimes referred to as mini-brains, “they’re unlikely to have anything like the complexity of a real human brain,” Kriegstein said. 

The brain’s immune system

Microglia, a type of brain immune cell, could play a therapeutic role in Alzheimer’s disease. MIT’s Li-Huei Tsai, Ph.D., who is also leading a collaborative OpenScope project with Allen Institute researchers, gave a keynote talk on research that flickering light or sound at certain frequencies can alleviate symptoms of Alzheimer’s in mice. The team found that in the mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, the light and sound therapy makes microglia more mobile — the cells crawl around the brain, searching out foreign invaders — and lowers inflammation. 

Brain immune cells could also influence our mood. Gen Ohtsuki, Ph.D., of Kyoto University shared work in mice showing that inflammation of the cerebellum, which sits at the base of the brain, changes the electrical activity of certain neurons and leads to depression-like behavior in the animal. When the researchers suppressed the animals’ microglia, the mice acted normal again. 

How the gut affects our brain health

Gut health and the gut microbiome seem to be top-of-mind in many fields, and neuroscience is no different. Researchers at SfN presented their latest findings on the -biome and -biotics — anti and pro — and how they might affect a range of brain health conditions, from Alzheimer’s disease to traumatic brain injury.

Hemraj Dodiya, Ph.D., of the University of Chicago shared gut-related findings that could explain why women are more likely to get Alzheimer’s. Dodiya’s latest work shows that, in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, antibiotics can clear the disease’s hallmark brain plaques — but only in male animals. It turns out that men and women (and male and female mice) have different microbiomes, and antibiotics also have different effects, in mice at least. 

Neurons and other brain cells that underlie disease

Several research groups — including at the Allen Institute — are looking to single neurons and other brain cells to better understand our brains as a whole. Out of these large-scale studies, researchers are finding new connections between individual brain cells and health and disease:

  • Chronic cocaine use “scars” our brain’s gene packaging systems in the reward center of the brain, according to new research from Philipp Mews, Ph.D., of Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. 
  • Adult neurogenesis, the generation of new neurons throughout our lives, drops off in people with Alzheimer’s disease, a study led by the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid’s Maria Llorens-Martin, Ph.D., found. 
  • UCSF’s Aparna Bhaduri, Ph.D., who is also an Allen Institute for Brain Science Next Generation Leader, presented work detailing how brain cell types develop and change as human brains grow before birth, research that lays the groundwork to better understand the cells that change in developmental disorders like schizophrenia. 

What were your favorite talks or topics at SfN? Tell us on Twitter @AllenInstitute

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