The Brain´s Networks Conference Blog

Stephan Maier (left) and Sven Ekholm (right) with Nobel Laureate Arvid Carlsson

Among the important tasks for the Academy facing the opening of the new Center for Imaging and Interventions (BoIC) are to support new research projects related to imaging and inform various research groups about new research possibilities. More recently courses and conferences have also been initiated with focus on specific organs and disease processes where our knowledge may benefit from the BoIC environment. In this Blog we will give a summary of one such international workshop arranged in Gothenburg, “The Brain’s Networks”, the goal of which was to spread knowledge about the brain’s function.

In recent years a large number of publications related to the brain’s neural networks have appeared in relation to how perception, thinking, and memory originate in the brain and how the networks are affected in different disease processes. These studies range from psychological approaches to medical imaging, such as fMRI, DTI and MEG. Simultaneously, mathematical models and theories have been developed that aim to provide a basis for a common interpretation of all information gathered; such models may also be helpful for hypothesis building and as support for future experimental studies in all of these areas. One example of what this research can accomplish is the model for our brain’s own GPS system for spatial orientation, the discovery of which was awarded last year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.

The Conference attracted some sixty participants and was held at Sahlgrenska Academy on September 18-20, 2015. On this first occasion it was decided to have only invited speakers from different disciplines focusing on the brain’s networks and their function, from the cellular level through medical imaging to neurological and psychological experiences, and concluding with mathematical models. In Gothenburg we have the advantage of having a number of renowned researchers in these areas, but to broaden the perspectives we also invited some researchers from the USA, the UK and Italy. We also had the pleasure to include “our own” Nobel Prize laureate Arvid Carlsson as guest of honor and initiator of the last day’s panel discussion.

The first day of the conference focused on studies using electrophysiological and microscopic techniques, as well as medical imaging. Professor Erik Hanse from the Sahlgrenska Academy (SA) began by talking about the nerve cell and research on the “engram”, i.e. memory traces in the brain, an area to which he himself has made important contributions. He was followed by professor emeritus Annica Dahlström (SA) who gave a survey of studies on the transport of substances in the nerve cell. Dahlström described various methods to map the distribution of nerve fibers in the brain, methods that she, along with, e.g., Arvid Carlsson, has been involved in developing and using.

Helge Malmgren and Stephen Grossberg

Helge Malmgren (right) together with Professor Stephen Grossberg from Boston University (left)

Professor Stephan Maier began the afternoon session speaking about MRI, in particular DTI, and described the method’s enormous potentials, but also its limitations. fMRI-researcher Helene van Ettinger-Veenstra from Linköping University then explained the method’s foundation, described a special technique called “resting state fMRI”, and told about some of the so called “functional networks” that were discovered using fMRI. The last speaker this first day was professor Johan Wessberg (SA) who explained the theory behind EEG and MEG, and showed how these two methods complement each other in the study of the brain.

Saturday morning started with epilepsy researcher Gavin Winston from University College London, who first spoke of the historical debate about the localization mental functions in the brain and then described the latest research related to temporal lobe epilepsy. With the help of, among other things, DTI and fMRI, we have gained entirely new insights into the mechanism of this severe disease. This was followed by Professor Massimiliano Aragona from the La Sapienza University in Rome who lectured about the relations between psychiatry and neuroscience. Aragona expressed pessimism about psychiatry’s ability to contribute substantially to knowledge about the brain because of weaknesses in our classification of mental disorders.

Dr Richard Dybowski, University of Cambridge, began the afternoon with a lecture on how to use the theory of artificial neural networks (ANN) to find patterns in scientific data. After a historical survey and explanations of the basics of the theory, Dybowski discussed the possibility of using ANN for analysis of data from research on the brain. This research often generates huge amounts of data that are difficult to manage without advanced mathematical methods. The afternoon ended with two lectures by one of the leading authorities on mathematical models of the brain’s neural networks, Professor Stephen Grossberg from Boston University. Grossberg first talked about perception, especially the perception of space, and how this can be explained in one kind of model that has been developed by Grossberg and colleagues. In his second talk Grossberg shifted focus to the problems surrounding the perception of time and then linked this to the research about the “GPS of the brain”. He argues that the brain handles space and time in virtually the same way, and that the neural networks that the brain then uses are a kind of so-called self-organizing maps (SOM).

The last day was devoted to a poster session and a detailed summing-up discussion. In the morning some ten posters were presented related to several different topics, everything from the philosophy of mind to fMRI, but all relevant for the understanding of the brain. The afternoon session was introduced by Professor Emeritus Arvid Carlsson, who connected to, among other things, the lecture by Dahlström. A very lively and interesting discussion on various topics from the lectures took place, providing a well-rounded conclusion to the conference.

In connection with the conference, Dr Richard Dybowski informed attendees of this meeting that he is now planning a follow up in Cambridge 2016, or possibly 2017.
All presentations, posters, and discussions were filmed and will be made public on http://brainsnetworks.gu.se.

Helge Malmgren, PhD, MD, Emeritus Professor, GU & Sven E. Ekholm, MD, PhD, Professor/ Senior Advisor, SA/SUH

(Photographs by Cina Holmer)

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