Along with editors at Springer Nature, I got the chance to ask a bit about the upcoming annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience before it starts on November 12.
The conversation is a mashup of a press conference of sorts and a wider discussion with colleagues from Scientific American and from Nature Neuroscience.
A transcript of the podcast is pasted further down on this page.
And here are a few audio-chapters from the podcast:
Two questions from Dr. Shari Wiseman, chief editor of Nature Neuroscience for Dr. Oswald Steward, the president of the Society for Neuroscience (SFN) and Dr. Damien Fair who is the chair of the SfN public education and communication committee.
Note: These podcasts are produced to be heard. If you can, please tune in. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and there’s a human editor. But a transcript may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.
Every year, neuroscientists come together in a big way at a giant conference of around 20,000 scientists and physician scientists from all sub disciplines of neuroscience. This year, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience SfN is in Washington DC. You're perhaps getting ready to go there, or you're already in Washington or you might just not be able to attend. For all those situations, here is a sneak peek of the meeting for you. Along with editors at Springer Nature, I got the chance to ask a bit about the meeting before it starts on November 12. It was a mashup of a press conference of sorts and a wider discussion with colleagues from Scientific American and from Nature Neuroscience. In this podcast episode, you will hear questions from them. And from me and responses by Here's Os Steward, who is at the University of California, Irvine at the Center for the neurobiology of learning and memory, where he directs the Reeve Irvine Research Center.
Oswald Steward [1:20]
So basically, the SfN meeting is organized in pretty much the way that it has been for many years. And we're delighted to be continuing the, I guess, resurgence of in person meetings, after two years of downtime, the top of the program, in my opinion, because these are things I did.
That’s fine. And oh, by the way, just a quick question. There are some things that are going to be hybrid, right? Just I've been asking people about that in these annual meeting, okay.
Yes, there are some things that are going to be a, let's call it not quite hybrid, but available digitally. What we're really, maybe I should just say something about that. What we're trying to do here is to make the in-person meeting the centerpiece of everything, because it really is. We've learned over the two years of not having the meeting, not being able to have the meeting that is just super important in all respects to have us gathered together. That's where things happen that we don't understand. And in biology, humans are humans are social, there's just stuff that cannot be replicated virtually. But at the same time, we do want to make good part of the meeting content available to those who can't attend for one reason or another. And actually, one of my goals when I started as president was to really expand the reach of SfN, to the extent that we could, by taking advantage of digital media, making content available to those who, you know, not just couldn't attend this year, but perhaps never could have attend. People in under-resourced countries were traveled to our meeting is just simply out of the question. So that we've tried to do that.
And the SfN team has, I think, done a superb job of putting it together learning how to do it in a way that's really I think, quite impactful, that will continue. That includes the major lectures and, and some of the symposium. So just maybe a quick summary of the as President, I have the opportunity and responsibility of choosing the lectures for the presidential lectures. And I'm really delighted with the lineup this year, it includes people who are doing different aspects of things that I love, for example, spinal cord injury, Zhigang He will be talking about regeneration in the spinal cord mRNA localization is a field that I think I can say I helped launch. And accordingly, Erin Schumann will be giving one of the presidential lectures.
One of the other things that I've really tried to do is, is to span really, most of the scope of what we call the neuroscience enterprise. And this year, because we're in Washington, and because well, we are responsible for developing things that might benefit mankind. I've also highlighted lectures that, that focus on diseases and disorders. And so we will have a lecture on the development of therapies, gene-modifying therapies for Huntington's disease, the trial and failure thereof. And so that's really sort of representative of the top and then the rest of the program is, as usual, represented by fantastic symposia, of different types that have been put together by the program committee, entirely based on recommendations of the membership. And then of course, the poster session, which will, will again be, I think, quite interesting.
I just have a question in what some of the bigger trends are that you you've seen in sort of the submissions, for example, the role of genetics in neuroscience seems to kind of be increasing. But over time, I guess, also the use of organoids. Some people love them, some people have their doubts, I'll give you you know, the freedom to kind of talk about which which trends you see.
Oswald Steward [5:25]
I think that one of the interesting trends, or maybe not a trend this year, I would maybe say more coming of age, is research on psychedelics, there's been increasing interest, of course, in this for the last many years, over the possibility that psychedelics might be actually useful for treating a variety of disorders, post traumatic stress syndrome syndrome, amongst others. And I think that there's been a lot of let's call it positive kinds of studies. And I think one of the trends that that I think I see is emergence of a more, let's call it skeptical, balanced kind of viewpoints really, more going into the scientific rigor aspect of things, then the, I guess, more phenomenological, I would call it. So that's a that's, I think, very typical of fields. You know, there's a, there's a start to it, people are very excited, those who are the leaders in the field, are, you're really pushing forward. And then as things mature, there comes a balance, I sense that there's more of a balance coming in this year. So I think we'll see some very interesting. And I think scientifically rigorous talks, I mentioned, diseases and disorders and our responsibility to really do things to benefit society. And that's certainly one of them.
The other one I will mention is really, I think, almost the same kind of thing, in terms of new therapy. So again, I mentioned the story, and really the gene modifying therapies for Huntington's disease, you know, spectacular basic science work, years of study led to a clinical trial. And then well, it didn't quite turn out the way it was hoped and sort of back to the drawing board. And, again, that's not a I don't, I don't view that as a failure at all. It's, it's, it's part of the development of science, that's quite natural. And so I think that that same kind of thing is being manifested there.
And I suspect we'll see some other examples of those really are, you've already mentioned, psychiatric disorders, you know, I think, in general, our field is, is increasingly getting to the point of having at least some understanding of some of the mechanisms and molecular bases of these of these various diseases and disorders. And, of course, those studies are super exciting. So identifying genes that predispose or increase risk, those kinds of things have been advancing for the past several years. And again, I think we're gonna see some maturation of that, that would be a real, real high level view.
The other one would be really just basic technologies. The BRAIN Initiative has been really quite amazing and developing tools and technologies that benefit all of us. And we'll see a lot of examples of that at the meeting. Where are these new technologies are allowing us to answer questions and delve into phenomena that really we've never been able to do in the past. So, you know, that's something that, you know, there's not really any single symposium per se, or, or, or major lecture on it, but it sprinkled throughout the meeting, and I think it's really very impactful.
The conversation about SfN was a group chat and Gary Stix from Scientific American asked this question.
Do any of you have any comment on the vision for predictive Alzheimer's, I mean, will, in 5,10 years, you get start getting a an amyloid test or a tau test. At the same time, maybe in your 40s when you're start getting cholesterol tests or, you know, something along those lines, or, you know, as with the psychedelics, you know, the actual and this goes, particularly for ketamine, but, you know, they haven't actually played out as miracle drugs that people particularly with ketamine, were talking about 10 years ago. So, getting back to the Alzheimer's blood test Can anybody comment on what you see is the vision for them?
Oswald Steward [10:05]
Well, I'll give I think, maybe personal viewpoint on that. So, in my opinion, it will depend on whether or not there is a therapy by that time available for people early in disease early in really very early in the disease. And if so, then that would be it being able to identify those at risk, I think would be of use. But if there is no therapy, if there is no possible intervention, I actually think that early early detection, especially if it's not absolutely certain, is not only of little use, but probably counterproductive in many situations. That's my personal viewpoint.
And I think the question will be whether or not these amazing therapies that are, that are in the pipeline, because we all know, the first was approved this year. But this is really just the tip of the iceberg. And I think we all appreciate that. There's a lot more to do. But if they're if they're if some of these therapies come online, then then perfectly appropriate. And in my opinion, I'm very excited about some of the things that we're seeing in terms of phospho-tau presence in, in blood. So I hope that answers your question. I mean, that's it's not a very scientific answer, by the way, I'm, I'm answering it from the point of view of I think society rather than than science per se, but that that would be my answer right now.
But it could also relate to environment and lifestyle factors, too.
sure. And that's another issue to the extent that we understand how environment and lifestyle could alter disease progression, I think it is highly appropriate. We have some inkling of that right now. Things like physical and mental exercise are thought to be important. Socialization is thought to be important. And you know, those things don't hurt you. So, in a sense, why not. But again, I think that if you were talking about a, an identification, and I'm talking here primarily about or, you know, early onset, that would be the one that that I think would be most problematic in terms of early diagnosis, if you didn't have any way to intervene. Again, my personal opinion.
I mean, conceivably, you could take the test at age 42, along with an Apo E test and learn that you've got your a homozygote. And that you might get gene therapy at the age of 50, to knock down the Apo E gene. So there's, there's a lot of different permutations of it, right?
Dr. Damien Fair was also in this conversation about the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, he heads, SfN's public education and communication committee, and he's at the University of Minnesota, at the Institute of Child Development, and also in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School. And he directs the Masonic Institute for the developing brain.
Actually I was going to say that just in his last conversation about the, about how the environment may impact these long term trends, that's a big one. That's a big topic. It's we're, we're, we're having a actually, we're having a press conference on that topic, you know, this year, about how, you know, these kinds of anecdotal relationships with with aging and development and brain health around the environment is a big one. So there may be some that particular conference may be of interest to folks, I'm very interested in, you know, there's a lot of things that are coming out right now that are beginning to pop around mental health, mental disorders, we're, for me, it's like, I feel like it's this this time, or at this particular moment in time, we're just at the early stages of the knee, where the discoveries are just gonna blow they're gonna take off.
And part is because we we've got interest, I think, three or four press conferences that are related to this, that are kind of linking both, kind of from the basic science and molecular science and animal models all the way up to what we finally have gotten good at with neuro imaging and non-invasive ways to, to, to look at the brain in like, very highly reliable ways, is like just changing everything, you know. So we just had a press conference on on the bad depression and mood disorders that I think is it's pretty exciting. that folks are there are leveraging some of these techniques that are across all levels. That are, that's pretty neat.
We're starting to learn some things that's probably going to change the game here, but in a very short period of time in that space, there's hot topics around like psychedelics, you know, which is, you know, we're, we're, we're, we're at a phase where I think that, that the, that, folks that the neuroscientists and folks at SfN are actually are actually enticed enough to really dig into the science, there's, there's a lot of anecdotes about how, how the how these different types of drugs relate to brain and brain health and other became used in in a therapeutic sense.
But we probably haven't really kicked the tires enough to know really how that how well that is. But there's, you can start seeing that kind of work coming out now. And that will be presented at the at the meeting this year. I'm a developmental person. So I do a lot of work and early child development and an adolescence. So the, I would say that the with the probably with the start of the ABCD study, which you know, is following these 12,000 kids in our in the seventh year of starting at nine or ten and following them all the way through adolescence has just blown up our understanding of adolescent brain development and in around stress and screen time, and you know, things of that that are of high interest, and that data is starting to now pop a little bit. So those are just a few things that I'm really excited about for this meeting.
The National Academies report recently, or earlier this year, actually came out with some comments and some thinking about these labels in genetics and human genetic studies, race, ethnicity, and ancestry. And you know, how to use them when not to use them. And I think this sounds like it's still kind of there's movement happen in this area. I was wondering if you might comment on this also, in terms for the manuscript editors and chief editors on this call for published studies, but also how you view this personally, say, for journalism, or just in outreach and communication.
Damien Fair [17:15]
Yeah, this is, man, this is this is a tough one, right? Because I think I don't know if everybody is fully on board yet. But I think what's clear, right, is that that race is right. It's a social construct, you know, it's not really a biological thing.
And that has taken a little bit of time for us to kind of break out of that, that mentality, you know, and but it doesn't mean it's not doesn't there's not societal race features are elements that aren't related to race. Of course, there are, but there's their social more than they are biology. So like, oftentimes, when you're, you know, trying to determine like, you know, when should you use it when she's not using? It depends on what you're asking. If you're asking questions related to biology think that that doesn't make a lot of sense, because it's not a biological construct. But if it's related to the social contract, and then it probably does, you know, so that's, you know, that's that's kind of my view.
And I think it's more that's beginning to be kind of more than the standard view doesn't mean things aren't the mean things aren't hard, still uncomplicated in in? And that is almost certainty to, I think, well, now that once you kind of get to that point, and you start realizing this, and you start start kind of viewing your data in a sense, there are a few things that will be that I know will be some will be presented at the meeting, some won't but show how, you know, certain types of environmental factors, again, is socio demographics can wipe out entire relationships, If you're not accounting for things correctly. Now, we do have a new event this year for the press conferences on the importance of population diversity and kind of workforce diversity in in making sure we're getting the science right.
And having lots of examples of how, when where, you know, it's essentially critical, you know, and I think in the genetics world in particular, there's been some, some difficult lessons learned after this. There a big data kind of went live where not all the populations are representative, sometimes being convenient and where the findings don't rush they apply to the general population.
We're seeing that super clearly now, leveraging that information and doing it. And applying some of those lessons to like in the case of neuroimaging and showing how it's identical, like you can see how things do not, do not, do not apply if if you're not taking into account of the the diversity in the, in the general know, the full population. So that also means that, that we probably have a lot more work to do on this topic in even expanding not just based on like, population basis of like North America and other Western countries. But, you know, thinking hard about if we really want to understand how the brain works, we need to, you know, understand how to make sure that everybody is represented.
In these conversations, we like to do a nerdy word game. It is in the tradition of questionnaires and a teeny homage to French journalist, Bernard Pivot and his talk show Apostrophes, which ran on French television from 1975 to 1990. And later, he had a show called Bouillon de Culture. That show ran from 1990 to 2001. He asked questions like, What is your favorite word? And what is your least favorite word? James Lipton in Inside the Actor's Studio used a questionnaire to with his interviewees, and that builds on the one Bernard Pivot had. Others do these kinds of questionnaires, too. Pivot has said that his questionnaire builds on questions by the French author Marcel Proust; some links about this are in the show notes. The questionnaire I do is not as sophisticated as the one Pivot developed. But the idea is to present interviewees some concepts and for them to give quick impressions of their thinking about these concepts. This time, I did the questionnaire with Dr. Jean Zarate from Nature Neuroscience.
So we have this ritual that we do with SfN leadership, when they come to chat with us. It's a nerdy word game that Damien has already played. And it's just a way to get a lot of information into very little time. So we'll mention two words, you pick one, please, that resonates more with you. And then we'll move on to the next person. As you might have done this before elsewhere Damien practice last year when we did a session with him. Ready? We could start with Damien, so it's easier for you. Okay, so start with Damien. I'll go. It's big conferences, or small conferences.
I hate this. (laughs)
It depends, I'm gonna say: Small conferences.
Jean do you want to go next?
Artificial Intelligence insight into the brain or a great tool?
And I'm answering the same question.
I'm into sizes. So I'm just going to ask this one: big labs or small labs.
Multiple collaborative, small labs.
Team science (laughs) look like that. That's a dichotomy. I wouldn't, I wouldn't choose to, I wouldn't choose one or the other. They both serve a very important purpose and for different things. Sorry. I know I'm passing on a lot. What can I say?
That's a tough one. I mean, it's I guess it's as long as it takes, but it shouldn't take too long. Yeah, as long as it takes.
No specific set time, but not unlimited. And after five too much, how about that.
The National Academies report recently, or earlier this year, actually came out with some comments and some thinking about these labels in genetics and human genetic studies, race, ethnicity, ancestry, and you know how to use them when not to use them. And I think this sounds like it's still kind of there's movement happen in this area. I was wondering if you might comment on this also, in terms for the manuscript editors and chief editors on this call for published studies, but also how you view this personally, say, for journalism, or just in outreach and communication.
Yeah, this is, man this is this is a tough one, right? Because I think I don't know if everybody's fully on board yet. But I think what's clear, right, is that that race is right. It's a social construct, you know, it's not really a biological thing. And that is it's taken a little bit of time for us to kind of break out of that, that mentality, you know, and but it doesn't mean it's not doesn't there's not societal race features or elements that aren't related to race.
Of course there are but there's their social more than they are biology. Like, oftentimes when you're, you know, trying to determine like, you know, when should you use it? When should I use? And it depends on what you're asking. If you're asking questions related to biology, I think that that doesn't make a lot of sense, because it's not a biological construct. But if it's related to the social contract, and then it probably does, you know, so that's, you know, that's kind of my view.
And I think it's more that's beginning to be kind of more than the standard view doesn't mean things aren't the mean things aren't hard, still complicated. And that is almost certainty to,. I think, well, now that once you kind of get to that point, and you start realizing this, and you start kind of viewing your data in this sense, there are a few things that will be that I know will be some will be presented at the meeting, some won't, but show how, you know, certain types of environmental factors, again, is socio demographics can wipe out entire relationships. If if you're not accounting for things correctly.
Now, we do have a new event this year for the press conferences on on the importance of population diversity and kind of workforce diversity in, in making sure we're getting the science right. And having lots of examples of how, when, where, you know, it's essentially critical, you know, and I think in the genetics world, in particular, there's been some, some difficult lessons learned after this, their era of big data kind of went live, where not all the populations are representative, sometimes being convenient. And where the findings don't necessairly apply to the general population.
We're seeing that super clearly now, we like taking leverages for leveraging that information and doing it. And applying some of those lessons to like in the case of neuroimaging and showing how it's identical, like you can see how things do not, do not, do not apply. If if you're not taking into account of the diversity in the, in general, I know the full population. So that also means that, that we probably have a lot more work to do on this topic in even expanding not just based on like, population basis of like North America and other Western countries. But, you know, thinking hard about if we really want to understand how the brain works, we need to, you know, understand how to make sure that everybody's represented.
Then we had a few questions from others on the call.
Shari Wiseman [23.25]
Hi, I’m Shari Wiseman, I’m the chief editor of Nature Neuroscience, actually have two questions. I’m going to start with the harder one first, maybe. So it strikes me I know, as mentioned that we’re going to be in Washington DC for the meeting. And it strikes me that we might be there for the US government shutting down. Because I believe the deadline to fund the government is during the meeting. And I was wondering if, you know, given this context, if you can talk a little bit about the society’s, you know, advocacy for science and science funding, and, you know, sort of what the kind of, I don’t know what what the sort of outlook is or sort of the temperature, the feeling is right now about government support for science, not only within the US, but, you know, specifically given this context.
People are pointing out that the actual government funding ends on the 17th. But I would imagine there will be rumblings as there often are in Washington.
Oswald Steward [24:20]
Yeah, I think that goes without saying, you know, we're, I have to say, in a very interesting time, in so many different ways, we seem to just in every in every aspect of things be going from crisis to crisis, and this is certainly another one. You know, we can't talk about support for science until the government is running, we can't really talk about for support for science until there's some kind of an established and stable leadership in the House of Representatives. I have no guess. As far as how this is gonna go. What I will say is that traditionally, support for science has not been as big a target for budget cuts, as have a lot of other things. But, you know, that's been in the past. And we, we are not in a situation right now, where the past is a very good predictor of anything.
Yeah, fair point about other questions a little bit easier, maybe or a little less fraught. So, you know, I'm familiar with your work as just, you know, beautiful electron micrographs and very sort of basic cell biology. And I was wondering kind of how you see the role of that kind of basic science in sort of today's neuroscience world where there's so much kind of big data and team science and kind of omics. And, you know, these kinds of massive datasets, what's the role for, you know, an individual kind of, you know, doing biochemistry or cell biology, you know, on a smaller scale?
Yeah, well, thanks for your comment. First of all, I, you know, these basic things will continue to be essential bit omics and big science generates ideas, new hypotheses are incredibly important, new directions that come from that. But fundamentally, at the end of the day, when you're really delving down into testing those hypotheses, it's kind of back to the bench, you know, no matter what the big science will tell you about probabilities. Really being able to disprove an hypothesis, which is the only thing that you can really accomplish in science takes hard news, rigorous, often basic science. And I don't think I think all these things I hate to be I hate to be answering all your questions by well, they all are important, but it's true. Sorry, it is true.
I think that's as it should be for the president of the society.
Damien Fair [27.10]
Yeah. I would just say that I completely agree. It's like they're all different aspects are different layers and different levels of understanding that are required for progress. And so you need it all. You know, I think the key for us in our challenge, which is, which I think is getting better, in part, because we're the labs are becoming so much more interdisciplinary and collaborative. Is that is how do you communicate across those different levels of exploration, and that that's really critical for really putting all that all everything into context, which is, you know, you know, part of, you know, the BRAIN Initiative, and that type of progress has done a pretty good job. But I think you can kind of see it beginning to grow a little bit more because our the lab, the general structure of how our labs are set up, and how we interact and communicate, which is by nature has to be now, you know, the labs have to be leveraging everybody's different expertise to be to do some of the big things will help with that endeavor.
The next question came from Dr. Elissa Floridiaa, from Nature Neuroscience. I see, Elissa, you've raised your hand.
Yeah, I mean, Damien, kind of answered already. But I was following up on that, you know, because neuroscience in the, in the almost 100 years that neuroscience existed, as a strong immensely. And yes, I was wondering exactly how you think a communication and collaboration among different scientists with different expertise is improving. And this is, you know, competition biologist versus seminar biologist, but also, you know, system biology versus clear biology and these sorts of things. What are the trends are the changes, for instance, in PhD programs, that or interaction or setup of collaborations that are happening, to make sure that all levels communicate correctly?
My personal belief on this, and I'd love to see how, how, you know, other folks answer, but I is that the lot of right, right now, are the kind of the kind of collaboration, that kind of melding of different kinds of expertise is kind of happening organically because us as neuroscientists want to answer big questions, and now it becomes almost a necessity where you're, you know, you're pulling different people from different spaces to do answer big things.
And I'm not as sure, like, our, our institutions are probably a little bit behind that, that that trajectory, which is kind of happening naturally, where how our grants are set up, you know, how, how people are promoted, you know, all of the things that kind of drive academia maybe isn't quite as, isn't there, but I can see it already. Like in changing of the promotion guidelines and things like this around team science and how to collaborate and, and what constitutes, as, you know, as a win, you know, on your CV and things like that. It's beginning, but I, I think the, the what's driving it is actually the science in and then what will probably come behind is, is the rules, you know, in our institutions.
Yeah, I'll just maybe add a couple of things. The, you asked about the institutions and what they're doing to try to prepare students for what is happening mean right now, and I'm, you know, I think back to when I was a student, I got my PhD, I thought I, you know, knew my field pretty well. I mean, you know, such as it was at that time, if if that if that knee was somehow transported to the future and sitting in my lab meetings, that me would not understand a word that's being said. So what that means is that the important thing I think that is being recognized is that we have to train students how to learn how to actually advance their understanding, based on an expertise that will be outdated very quickly. And that's different than it used to be, you know, the facts are less important than it is the the method of how we understand those facts and get new ones. So institutions are trying to work on this. I don't think they've quite succeeded yet. But that's just one aspect of the problem.
That was Conversations with scientists.
Today's episode was with Dr. Oswald Steward, the President of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). He is at the University of California, Irvine at the Center for the neurobiology of learning and memory, where he directs the reef Irvine Research Center.
And you heard Dr. Damien Fair who heads the public education and communication Committee. He is at the University of Minnesota at the Institute of Child Development and also in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School. And he directs the Masonic Institute for the developing brain. You also heard from others. Dr. Shari Wiseman, chief editor of Nature Neuroscience, Dr. Jean Zarate and Dr. Elisa Floriddiaa, both senior editors at Nature Neuroscience, and Gary Stix from Scientific American. The music in this podcast is Billiard Balls, by Raw, licensed from artlist.io. Thank you to the SfN communications team for helping to make this conversation happen.
And I just wanted to say because there's confusion about these things, sometimes nobody paid for this podcast and nobody paid to be in this podcast. This is independent journalism that I produce in my living room. I'm Vivien Marx. Thanks for listening.
(Getty Images/Science Photo LIbrary /Pasieka)