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30,000 Brain Scientists!

Robin in the Society for Neuroscience exhibit hall.

By Robin Cunningham

On Thursday, October 11, Hakon Heimer and I flew from Providence, RI and Pennington, NJ, respectively, to New Orleans for the annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience (Neuroscience 2012). Hakon attends each year in his capacity as editor of Schizophrenia Research Forum, to gather the latest news on brain research, but for me it was an eye-opening, first-time experience.

 A huge conference

The annual Neuroscience conference is the biggest deal in the brain world.  More than 30,000 researchers and sundry others involved in neuroscience come from all over.  There are only a few convention centers in the U.S. that are big enough to handle such numbers.  The one time that I walked from one end of the convention center to the other it seemed to me a long trip indeed!

Even with that many in attendance there were precious few standing around in the lobbies killing time. (Yes I mean lobbies, not lobby – there were many!)   A smorgasbord of sessions covering topics from genetics and brain circuitry to neurological psychology were available for those registered to attend the conference.  There were even sessions open to the general public.  The ubiquitous vendor displays and a cornucopia of posters displaying the scientific work of some of the attendees covered an area on the lower floor of the convention hall the size of several football fields.

Robin and Hakon with picture of Santiago Ramon y Cajal

Robin and Hakon and the Father of Neuroscience, Santiago Ramon y Cajal

I saw many schematic drawings of highly sophisticated brain circuits and pictures of various parts of nerve cells, but what it all means for mental illness is still beyond me. Hakon says that this is true for scientists as well, and was of the opinion that mental illness is still underrepresented at this meeting. In part, that is because the pathology of mental disorders, perhaps with the exception of Alzheimer’s disease and Tourette’s disease, is still elusive. It probably lies in subtle alterations in those sophisticated circuits. However, mental illness research also suffers from underfunding relative to other disorders of similar public burden, meaning there just aren’t as many scientists on the case.

Personal meetings

For me, there were two high points of Neuroscience 2012. The first was meeting and talking with Dr. Herbert Meltzer, a highly regarded psychiatrist and researcher at Northwestern University in Chicago.  He is known as the man whose research and persistence brought clozapine to America. It remains the drug with the best efficacy in schizophrenia, especially in people who don’t respond to other treatments, but has significant side-effects. I was glad to share my story with Dr. Meltzer, and with Hakon we discussed a variety of current issues, including the difficulty of getting traction in understanding and treating mental disorders. He said that stigma still kept many potentially important supporters from stepping forward.

The second highlight was being invited to the annual dinner hosted by Bob and Julie Switzer, whom I had met at the Neuroscience 2011 Schizophrenia Social, which Hakon organizes each year at the conference.  They are delightful and generous, and their interest in mental illness stems in part from being witness to the tribulations that mental illness brought to Hakon’s family—Bob was a research colleague of Hakon’s father at the time Hakon’s brother developed schizophrenia, and later created a company, NeuroScience Associates, using methods he developed to process brain tissue for study.

It wasn’t all science and advocacy talk, however: Hakon and I found time for a little sightseeing.  We took a streetcar through the Garden District, passing through some of the oldest and most exclusive parts of New Orleans.  The houses were magnificent, stately and meticulously maintained.  We also enjoyed terrific gumbo and other New Orleans specialties, though we were disappointed that we never had an opportunity to see The Preservation Jazz Hall Band. The line of neuroscientists at the door of the hall was too long!

Neuroscience and art

On the morning of Saturday the 13th, I attended a session entitled Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society: My Life as a Rolling Neurological Clinic, which featured the innovative painter Chuck Close and his work. He is unable to recognize faces, having a condition called prosopagnosia, yet all his paintings are facial portraits. Just as his reputation as a painter was peaking at the age of 48, a collapsed spinal artery rendered him paraplegic. Neither of these neurological conditions has stopped him from becoming world-famous.

Chuck’s artist abilities are a confluence of all his skills and interests.  Long before computer graphics came into its own, he was painting with pixels of paint and paper, anticipating our current digital world.  His primary focus throughout has been on creating large portraits in which the pixels are readily visible.

On viewing his paintings I am left with the sense that he has gathered together all the bits and pieces of the life experience of each of his complex human subjects and, in placing each bit and piece in its proper place on canvas, he has presented for view not only his subject’s countenance but also the depth of their souls. You can view his talk online.


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