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New windows into the brain
by Apoorva Mandavilli
The Society for Neuroscience annual meeting "is a zoo," one
neuroscientist put it, some weeks before this year's conference:
"Everyone hates it, yet everyone goes."
This year was no different: Undaunted by slashed budgets or security
concerns, a record 28,500 attendees from all over the world swarmed in on
sunny San Diego.
Armed with massive programs, neuroscientists could be seen and heard
everywhere: in hotels, restaurants, on TV, in taxicabs, jogging on the
boardwalk. For the week of the conference, the town normally known for
such intellectual exclamations as "dude" and "sweet!" resounded with
animated debates on neuronal plasticity, synapses and signaling.
For some young scientists, the main attraction was the opportunity to see
neuroscience greats and Nobelists like Eric Kandel, Stanley Prusiner and
Paul Greengard. In a Presidential Special Lecture Paul Greengard told a
packed conference hall that the latest studies of the dopamine receptor,
implicated in disorders from Parkinson's disease to schizophrenia, all
converge on DARPP-32, a molecule he predicts will make pharmaceutical
companies very happy.
Stem cells, which dominated last year's program, again made for memorable
news. Glial cells, which most neuroscientists have regarded as support
cells, can in fact serve as stem cells that generate neurons even in
adults, Magdalena Götz and her colleagues at the Max-Plank Institute of
Neurobiology reported. Harvard neurologist Evan Snyder proposed that
transplanted neural stem cells can alleviate neural degeneration by
instructing host cells to regenerate, rather than by maturing into
One of the most intriguing studies of the conference came from Arthur
Craig of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. Craig
presented classic anatomical tracings, as well as cutting-edge PET and
fMRI scans, that delineate the insular cortex, a unique region he says
registers the inner state of the body and generates the uniquely human
sense of self.
Using such fancy imaging techniques to reveal the workings of the brain
was a common thread in this year's sessions. Electron microscopy is
poised to unravel the mysterious structures within the nerve synapse,
revealed Uel (Jack) McMahan, a professor of neurobiology at Stanford
University School of Medicine. Entire sessions were devoted to new
techniques in diagnosing Alzheimer's disease (AD), the most promising of
which is a derivative of the Congo Red probe that can penetrate the
blood-brain barrier and selectively label plaques, tangles, and
University of Pennsylvania researchers identified regions of the brain
that become metabolically active when a person lies, using used to
identify event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI);
Canadian researchers unmasked the connections between speech and music,
between listening and performing; and Emory University researchers
pinpointed a region that helps us grasp mirror images and use them to
direct our movement.
For the first time, researchers have also been able to predict a monkey's
behavior solely on the basis of which neurons fire in a portion of its
brain. Columbia University neurologist Michael Goldberg arrived at those
results using a novel test to measure attention. SFN's president-elect
Huda Akil is employing increasingly popular microarrays to identify genes
that are important in emotional response. Cortical molecules of the
stress system play a critical role in shaping individual differences in
emotional reactivity, Akil said.
Several different teams also presented seemingly contradictory results on
gender-specific differences in the response to stress. Columbia
University neurobiologist Darcy Kelley says the South African clawed
frog, Xenopus laevis may be a model system to study the cellular effects
of hormones in generating gender-specific characteristics. Janis Weeks of
the University of Oregon also showed precisely how steroid hormones
affect individual neurons in the simple nervous system of a caterpillar.
As with other years, several sessions were devoted to individual disease
studies. Two types of cell transplants were shown to hold off muscle
atrophy in mouse models of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
University of Pennsylvania researchers discovered that dendrites, the
signal-receiving end of neurons, go awry to cause diseases such as
Fragile X mental retardation. Scientists cautioned that the miracle drug
L-dopa, which has been prescribed for Parkinson's disease (PD) patients
for more than 30 years, may itself be partly responsible for the
cognitive deficits associated with PD. Alzheimer's disease researchers
dueled over the efficacy of the vaccine approach, now in clinical trials,
in reversing cognitive deficits associated with that disease.
In normal aging brains, the prefrontal area of the brain takes the
biggest hit, and people who age successfully compensate for the loss by
engaging both hemispheres. In neurodegenerative diseases like AD and PD,
some researchers argued, protein aggregates themselves may not directly
damage the nerve cells, or produce the clinical signs. Rather, they
suggest, dysfunction may be due to the toxic effects of soluble forms of
the affected proteins.
In neuroscience, perhaps more than other life sciences, such disagreement
is not uncommon. Synaptic research veteran Thomas Sudhof rued his role in
the "in-fighting" of the synapse world, saying, "many times, scientists
propose ideas not because they believe it's completely true but to be
known for an idea. It would be better to concentrate on known facts."
Dale Schenk, who took the contentious Alzheimer's field by storm two
years ago, advised young scientists to just worry about the science. "You
can't own science. It is what it is," he said. "Patients don't care who
did what when. All they care about is a treatment. And we have to work as
hard as we can do that."
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