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Jan Freyberg reports on very successful Cambridge Neuroscience Seminar

Friday the 14th of March saw the Department of Psychiatry host the 26th annual Cambridge Neuroscience Seminar (CNS). As always, the seminar provided neuroscientists with a great opportunity to network and show off their work. Organised in cooperation with Cambridge Neuroscience, this year’s seminar had the theme “Brain Science and Mental Health”.

Attended by 370 scientists, the seminar comprised 11 talks and lectures and 67 posters.

The seminar comprised three themed sessions on Developmental Disorders, Addiction and Compulsion, and Later Life Disorders. In addition, there were two plenary lectures as well as a public lecture that formed part of the Cambridge Science Festival.

First was the plenary lecture was given by Professor Mark Johnson from Birkbeck, University of London. The lecture gave an overview of Professor Johnson’s seminal work on the development of social cognition in children starting during pregnancy. Being one of the first neuroscientists to develop rigorous experimental strategies to study infant cognition, the talk also made for a fitting introduction to the first session on Developmental Disorders.

The session, chaired by Professor Ian Goodyer, started with a talk by the head of the Department of Psychiatry and Principal Investigator of the EpiCentre lab group, Professor Peter Jones. The talk focused on population level comorbidity of psychiatric conditions and the importance of studying sets of symptoms separately from the confines of psychiatric diagnoses. Then, Dr Michael Lombardo from the Autism Research Centre presented recent findings of the group on the link between the hormonal environment of a fetus and its later development, structurally as well as cognitively. Ending the first session was Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith, head of the Department of Genetics. Her talk focused on the important impact of genetic imprinting on neural development. In particular, the role of some imprinted genes in adult neurogenesis has been researched extensively in the Department of Genetics.

The first half of the day then ended with a plenary lecture by Professor Trevor Robbins (pictured right) from the BCNI and Department of Psychology. This lecture was sponsored by MedImmune and was introduced by Professor Paul Fletcher who congratulated Professor Robbins on his most recent achievement, the award of the Brain Prize, which is Europe’s premier prize for neuroscience research awarded by the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation. Presenting on years of findings in their lab with which his group traced the brain mechanisms underlying impulsivity and compulsivity using animal models and human behavioural and imaging studies.

One of the highlights of the Cambridge Neuroscience Seminar is the poster session, which takes place during the lunch break alongside the trade exhibition. The 2014 Cambridge Neuroscience Seminar took place in the Department of Engineering, which offered a great space for the poster presentations. This session allows graduate students, undergraduate students as well as early career researchers from across the University to present recent findings and projects and get feedback from the great talent pool of neuroscientists. This year saw more than 67 posters presented, covering topics of a wide range – from music and rhythm in dyslexia to cellular work in Down’s syndrome.

Varun Warrier, one of the students presenting his work on the genetics of autism, said “I thought that the poster session was very informative. It helped me get a panaromic overview of neuroscience research at the University, which was very exciting. Also, it was nice to see people from various departments within the university talk about their work in one space.”

Themed sessions then continued, with a session chaired by Professor Barry Everitt on Addiction and Compulsion. Including an impressive overview of current research into drug addiction by Dr Karen Ersche, head of the Drug Addiction Research group, it also included talks on compulsivity by Dr Valerie Voon from the BCNI, and a presentation on the link between the emotional brain and disorders of addiction by Dr Tim Dalgleisch. Together, these talks formed a fantastic exploration of research into our understanding of addiction.


Professor Angela Roberts then introduced the last themed session of the day. Dr James Rowe spoke about his work on impulsivity in Parkinson’s disease and possible ways of treating it. Along with the theme of the day, the talk focussed on the link between cognitive experiments in psychiatric disorders that can be extended into possible ways of treating them. Professor Hugh Markus then presented imaging approaches to cerebral small vessel disease, and Professor Barbara Sahakian gave an overview of her group’s work on detecting neuropsychiatric disorders earlier in life. This included studies on genetic and hormonal biomarkers in children and teenagers, as well as cognitive indicators of later-onset diseases.

An aspect which remains important to the core of the Cambridge Neuroscience Seminar is to foster excellent neuroscientific research here in Cambridge. To this end, a team of judges (recruited from Cambridge Neuroscience) agreed on three outstanding poster prize winners. Each winner received a £100 prize from Cambridge Neuroscience and an annual subscription to Science (sponsored by AAAS Science), which was presented by Science editor Dr Pater Stern. Cambridge PhD student Mr Kris Varun Parag from the Department of Engineering won the PhD poster prize while Dr Alister Nicol (Department of Zoology) won the Post Doctoral poster prize. A final prize was awarded to Miss Elizabeth Davenport from the Department of Neuroscience, Physiology, and Pharmacology at University College London.

The day finished with the public lecture in association with the Cambridge Science Festival. The well-attended lecture, given by Professor Michael Owen (pictured bottom right) from the University of Cardiff, was titled “Genes, Brains and Psychiatry”, and focused on the current process of establishing large-scale genomic studies that connect gene variants to specific mechanisms and symptoms in conditions. He argued that improving both the characterisation of individual symptom profiles and individual genomes will improve our understanding of how genes can psychiatric conditions.

Professor Jones, Head of Department of Psychiatry, said “I thought the day was a great success, enjoyed by many people from across the wide range of Cambridge Neuroscience. As well as showcasing neuroscience research on mental health and clinical brain disorders the seminar also provided the opportunity for interaction between applied and basic neuroscience; there was a real buzz in the air during the talks, around the posters and during the breaks. The public lecture by Mike Owen was perfectly judged – that so many delegates remained to listen on a sunny Friday evening, with the lecture theatre swelled to capacity by members of the public, was a testament to the success of the day.”

The chatter in the groups of students and researchers leaving the seminar at the end of the day was an indication of the success the seminar had in achieving the aims it had set itself. With talks on topics from genes and molecules, to hormones and brain structures, to cognitive and behavioural data, the sessions shed light on the effort in Cambridge on linking basic brain science and complex syndromes and diseases. Groups of people drifting out of the seminar were animated with new ideas for research and collaboration within the University, and a better awareness of research going on in Cambridge.

Summing up the day, Professor Jones said “I was delighted that the Department of Psychiatry hosted the event and am grateful to Dervila Glynn for her hard work and attention to detail, to Ed Bullmore and for leadership, and to all those who helped make the day a success.  The consistent message from the oral and public presentations was an optimistic one: we are moving beyond defunct descriptive psychiatric diagnosis towards a more fundamental understanding of mental health and disorder, a prerequisite to new therapeutic approaches.”

In the first of 2 special episodes of Naked Neuroscience, Dr Hannah Critchlow reports from the recent Cambridge Neuroscience Seminar. Featuring in this episode are Cambridge Neuroscientists Professor Trevor Robbins, Professor Barbara Sahakian, PhD students Katherine Manning, Kate McAllister and post doctoral researcher Dr Martin O'Neill. Our public lecturer Professor Michael Owen from Cardiff also features on this episode.

Adapted from article written by Mr Jan Freyberg for Department of Psychiatry News

Posted on 26/03/2014

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