What are the future treatments available for diseases of the nervous system? What can the general public do to help scientists understanding the brain? How is an experiment done in the lab and what does it mean? Can we improve our brain’s performances? Will we be able to speak another language just thanks to a microchip implanted in our brain? (My hope was high on this one… but, unfortunately, the answer is ‘not in the near future’).
These were some of the curiosities discussed in the very first Neuro-unconference at the Convent de Sant Agustí in Barcelona on March 20th 2013, with a panel of scientists including Mara Dierssen, Mavi Sanchez-Vives, Ramon Trullas, Diego Regolar Ripol, and Elena Muñoz Marrón.
This unconference was ‘a first’, an experiment in itself.
We knew there was going to be a keynote speech on a topic chosen by the public on line; a Speakers’ corner, with young scientist standing up to share some interesting ideas; and the explanation of a proper experiment. But nobody knew how exactly the evening was going to be shaped, not even the organiser, Mara Dierssen.
Mara’s point was that interaction with lay public can help scientists in their job, so purposely this unconference didn’t have a path set in stones.
The people’s choice
On the CRG website, people could vote beforehand for the topic they’d like to know more about.
First, Mavi Sanchez took us through the different topics proposed: among things like cyborg, artificial intelligence, use or recreational drugs, implication of neuroscience on ethical issues, the majority of the people voted to know more about the feature of treatments for neurological diseases.
It seems like we are all freaking out.
Ramon Trullas, a pessimist by admission, pointed out a few factors responsible for the current lack of powerful treatments for neurological diseases:
1) Neuroscience is still a new discipline: there is a lot we don’t know
2) Just few neurological illnesses are genetic. Understanding the human genome didn’t allow a big progress for neuroscience as for other disciplines
3) Diseases are generally studied according to the formula one organ= one disease. The brain is more complicated than that, its work is not just a function of its anatomy, but also of integration of signals.
4) Major pharma companies, scared by all of the above, have been cutting down on investments in CNS drugs.
However, not all treatments have to come from drugs.
Diego Regolar Ripol and Elena Muñoz Marrón described a relatively new technique, called transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS.
This technique is based on the principles of electromagnetic induction: a very powerful magnetic field, positioned closed to a conductor generates an electric impulse.
In TMS, a plastic-enclosed coil of wire is positioned in a specific point on the head. When the coil is activated, it generates an electromagnetic field that passes through skin and skull and, at the brain levels, changes the neuronal activity of the treated areas. At the moment, the field doesn’t have deep penetration, so TMS can be used to study just the more superficial layers of the brain (the cortex). However, scientists all around the world are trying to boost this technique, to be able to study even deeper brain layers involved in neurological disorders.
Repetitive applications cause long term effects, making TMS a powerful new tool for the treatment of neurological conditions like depression, Parkinson disease, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, post-traumatic disorder, chronic pain and anxiety.
Maybe the future is not so bleak, after all.
The Speaker corner
This was really entertaining: 7 young neuro-enthusiastic – scientists and not- shared with us some of their ideas, in less than five minutes each. We discussed language (Julia Monte); the ability of learning new things even when we are no more kids (Jesus Antonio Bas), similarity between the brain and an electric circuit (Belen Sancristobal); neuroarchitecture, a cross talk between neuroscience and architecture that can help shaping buildings in a way better suited to their functions (Fernanda Matas and Ruth Costa); what is ‘conscience’ (Mark Quevado), and the risks of recreational drugs (Mireia Ventura).
Kudos to these young speakers who had the hard job of standing up in front of a crowd and translate science lingo for the public!
Ever thought about being a scientist for a day? Mara Dierssen’s lab set up a mock experiment on the CRG website and asked people to give it a go. The person that gave the best answers will go in the actual lab and do the experiment for real.
Marta Fructuoso and Jose Antonio Espinosa explained the different steps of the experiment.
The question was:
Can a difference in ‘Protein x’ effect the ability of mice to learn?
There are two groups of mice, one is a ‘control’, the other has something different in regard to the ‘Protein x’. (In real life it can mean that the mice doesn’t have the protein x, has a slightly different protein x, has less of it, has more… but for this purpose we don’t need to spell it out).
To study mice’s learning ability, Marta and Jose set up a water maze test. This is a standard behavioral test we use in the lab to assess learning abilities over time: The scientists put the mouse in a maze with water; on the borders of the maze there are visual clues, allowing the mouse to orient himself. Underneath the water there is a platform, invisible to the animal: mice don’t love swimming, so they will look for a place where to rest. At first, it would take the mouse some time to find the platform, swimming around to explore the surrounding. The procedure is repeated over time ( day 1, day 2 and so on) and the scientists assess if the mouse has learned where the platform is by measuring the distance it swims before finding the platform. If the mouse has been learning, it will take progressively less swimming around to find the platform.
As a scientist, it was interesting to see what non-scientists see in our experiments and charts, and how they interpret the data. I’m not going to give you the answer: The experiment is still up here. Try it for yourself and I’m sure the scientists in Mara Dierssen’s lab would be delighted to discuss your doubts.
The scientist’s take
I loved the unconference format. I’m used to formal, never-ending meetings… sometimes boring.
The relaxed environment of the unconference allowed people to converse freely, with exchanges, no barriers between experts and public. And although I am a scientist, I learnt something new: for example, I learned more about TMS, and also that people want to help and collaborate even if they are not scientist. As Mara Dierssen and Mavi Sanchez said, there are lots of ways of doing that: to volunteer for studies, but also to donate organs for research. On the other hand, the curiosity, the support and the interaction with people in itself is helpful for scientists, and someone with a different point of view, not so ingrained in the problem, could really help us analysing things in different ways and come up with different solutions.
The public’s take
I sat next to a lovely lady who turns out to be an airplane pilot. She was so kind to talk with me about the unconference. Guess what? She loved it too, and she wasn’t ‘familiar’ with all these ‘brain stuff’. Not only she enjoyed the relaxed format, she learned something new, which I think is one of the main point for a meeting like this
I wish more conference were un-conference.
Big thanks to the organiser, the speakers, the people in the public, and the one who followed the unconference on streaming for their contribution.