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October 27, 2015

Society for Neuroscience runs 45th annual symposium

Scientists from the world’s premier academic institutions gathered at McCormick Place to discuss the newest findings regarding the brain at the Society for Neuroscience’s 45th annual symposium, known informally as Neuroscience 2015.

The conference, held from October 17 to 21, featured rows of poster displays. Each one detailed new discoveries made by neuroscience researchers. Corporations and small businesses showcased new techniques and lab equipment, including multiphoton microscopes and neural imaging cameras. The scientists in attendance were invited to use the equipment. 

Throughout the day, there were special lectures by esteemed scientists, including Dr. Francis Collins, current director of the National Institutes of Health and former leader of the Human Genome Project.

Some researchers traveled to the conference from as far as Europe and Asia, while others came from as near as Hyde Park.

Professor S. Murray Sherman, who currently serves as the Chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at the University of Chicago, was among the crowd of neuroscientists. He described his research as focusing on the brain’s circuits and their functions. He is primarily concerned with the interactions between the brain’s thalamus and cortex.

Sherman, one of the longtime members of the conference, has been coming to the annual meeting since 1972.

“It started off [in 1971] with 500 members and now has close to 40,000,” said professor Sherman. “It is by far the most important neuroscience society in the world.”

Sherman also commented on the recent recognition of neuroscience as an established field. He applauded the Society for Neuroscience’s annual symposium for contributing to neuroscience’s acclaim.

“In the early ’70s, when it got started, neuroscience was something people were getting really excited about...but there was no home for it and there were no neuroscience departments. As departments got created and societies started, people who used to identify themselves as anatomists or physiologists...started to recognize this as a better home for them. So they started coming to this meeting.”

Other UChicago professors were also present, including professor Jason Maclean, an assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology. Maclean, who has been attending the conference since 1998, focuses on using mathematics to develop general laws that describe how the brain works.

“My lab is interested in how the brain computes. And what we’ve done is broken down that problem into a few discrete components. One is how do neurons communicate with one another,” Maclean said. “The second thing is time... activity in the brain evolves through time and we want to know what’s the appropriate scale of time to consider when you think about computation in the brain. Finally, we are very interested in how information is stored in the brain.”

The complexity of the problems Maclean seeks to answer requires an interdisciplinary approach that is characteristic of the field of neuroscience. The Maclean laboratory alone draws on topics from fields like mathematics, computer science, and physiology.

“It’s an amazing time to be a neuroscientist,” Maclean said. “I have my point of view and other people have different points of view, which is good. So you have tension and you have a dialogue. And the expectation and the hope is that you take all this stuff and throw it at the problem because we don’t know what the best way is.”

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