Reflections on SFN 2014


This week I join over thirty thousand colleagues at the unmissable annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in DC. I proudly don my 25-year member badge, which my friends all politely ignore. I still remember my first meeting, 1987 in New Orleans, very clearly. SFN just blows you away the first time. It was a giant meeting. We were eleven thousand then. Many of my heroes (and heroines) suddenly materialized into human beings. I even got to speak to some of them, and to present my work directly to them in the Grand Bazaar atmosphere of the poster sessions. Back then we had no idea what these eminent scientists looked like or what personalities they had. They were not on the web or on the other side of an email.

Well, SFN today still blows me away. Neuroscience is a continual explosion of discoveries about our most precious organ and its baffling mental counterpart – through inspiring ingenuity of experimentation, technical developments, as well as dogged tenacity and defiance of the impossible. We are a young academic field. (If you’re interested, an interactive history of SFN’s first 25 years is now on the web: ). Some of our most sacred building blocks go back only a few decades. Today, Floyd Bloom reminded us, during his beautiful Kavli history-of-neuroscience lecture, that the most eminent group of neurophamacologists back in the 70s could not agree that glutamate and GABA were neurotransmitters. But what we have achieved is remarkable.

Pondering on my own 25 years in the field, the changes and advances are staggering. We can study activity inside the human brain non-invasively. The dynamical properties of the brain area embraced. The brain went from being reactive to proactive and predictive. (OK, it was always proactive and predictive, but rarely studied that way.) Oscillations went from being weird to ignorable to centre stage. When I step outside my immediate cognitive-neuroscience field, things seem even more bizarre. We can rainbow colour neurons (here’s a great on this), look through transparent brains (Nature You Tube ), visualize spikes across populations of neurons without sticking electrodes in them, optically stimulate just that cell you’re interested in, use viruses to chart monosynaptic connections… Wow.

I often wonder how ‘neuroscience’ works so well as a field. We are so heterogeneous. We span all levels of organization from molecule to circuits to mind to society. We bring together so many disciplines, and continue to welcome new ones in. Latest immigrants include engineers, tech developers, informaticians… We populate the globe. We wear sneakers and stilettos and ties and baggy trousers and mini skirts, and our badges of course! But somehow we are cohesive. We form a tightly knit community. We value mentoring and the future generations. It was moving to hear the giants Roger Nicoll and Dick Tsien both stating that their greatest legacy was their students and postdoctoral fellows. We are open minded, and face our inevitable human shortcomings, as Mahzarin Banaji’s Kopf neuroethics lecture reminded us.

In this yearly city, you are never far away from an old friend or from making a new one. Old connections, new connections, sparking and interacting – SFN is the social metaphor for the brain itself.

Kia Nobre, D.C., 18th November 2014