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30,000 Brain Researchers Meld Minds At Science's Hottest Hangout

Neuroscientist Takashi Kitamura works in the lab of Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of their recent projects  helped identify a brain circuit involved in processing the "where" and "when" of memory. "Ocean cells" (red) and "island cells" (blue) play key roles.
Takashi Kitamura/MIT
Neuroscientist Takashi Kitamura works in the lab of Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of their recent projects helped identify a brain circuit involved in processing the "where" and "when" of memory. "Ocean cells" (red) and "island cells" (blue) play key roles.

For a few days this week, a convention center in Chicago became the global epicenter of brain science.

Nearly 30,000 scientists swarmed through the vast hallways of the McCormick Place convention center as part of the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting. Among them were Nobel Prize winners, the director of the National Institutes of Health, and scores of researchers regarded as the international rock stars of neuroscience.

"It's amazing. I'm a bit overwhelmed," said Kara Furman, a graduate student from Yale who was attending her first Society for Neuroscience meeting.

Furman was just one of several hundred neuroscientists I found standing in lines outside the center one afternoon, waiting for shuttle buses. She was pondering a presentation from a few hours earlier that she found "pretty mind-blowing."

What was it about? "Using MRI techniques to access dopamine release at the molecular level," she told me, deadpan.

Welcome to the five-day annual event that's become known simply as "Neuroscience." It's where brain scientists from around the world come to present their own work and discover the "mind-blowing" research others are doing.

And there are thousands of presentations to choose from.

"I prepared an itinerary based on my interests and that ran into 20 pages," said Srinivas Bharath from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, India.

Many of the scientists arrived clutching mailing tubes containing poster presentations of their research. They unfurled their charts and graphs at precise times in an exhibit hall that looked like the world's largest science fair.

I asked Julie Douville from Charles River Laboratories in Montreal what her poster was about. "It's on targeted intracerebral administration in the cynomolgus monkey," she said, apparently assuming her answer was self-explanatory.

Of course, the meeting didn't always attract 30,000 scientists.

To learn about its history, I spoke with Jacqueline McGinty, a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. At the first Society for Neuroscience meeting McGinty attended, in 1978, there were only about 5,000 people.

"Looking back it was really quite small and the population in neuroscience at the time was pretty small," she said.

But that changed quickly during the 1980s. "More and more programs were calling themselves neuroscience and this became the center and the major meeting for everyone to convene over the years," she said.

Also, brain science began to interest researchers from apparently unrelated fields, like digestive diseases, McGinty said. "Now they're interested in the entire physiology that includes the brain and food addiction as well as studies below the neck."

The breadth of neuroscience's appeal was pretty clear at at least one media event at this year's meeting. It featured scientists from seven different disciplines at the National Institutes of Health.

I asked the scientists why this meeting, and neuroscience itself, have become such a big deal. They provided a range of answers.

Neil Buckholtz of the National Institute on Aging suggested it was because brain research isn't just about rats and mice anymore. "Now the animal of choice is really the human in many of the studies that we're doing," he said.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said it's because of the tools scientists have now — like imaging technologies that have "really enabled us to look at the living human brain, to try to explore actually the circuitry and networks."

But Dr. Walter Koroshetz, who directs the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, had a more pragmatic explanation for scientists' growing interest in the brain. "The brain acts on money," he said. "And neuroscience is now the largest bucket of funding at NIH."

Of course, even a hard-core neuroscience meeting is about socializing as well as science.

"Always we have some social party," Takashi Kitamura told me as he downed a beer with some friends at a hotel bar. Then he joked that his friends would have trouble waking up the next day.

It's a rare break for Kitamura, a research scientist at MIT who didn't get where he is by being a party animal.

Between beers, Kitamura mentioned that he works with Susumu Tonegawa, a Nobel Prize winner who is studying the basis of memory. So once the socializing and poster sessions are over, he will return to the painstaking task of world-class brain science.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.
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