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Credibility and Change at the BNA 2023 Festival of Neuroscience

The BNA 2023 logo.
Credit: BNA
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The Brighton Centre is a stocky, Brutalist conference venue with a dazzling view. Squatting along the waterfront of England’s south coast, the Centre's outlook to the horizon is only broken by the distant Rampion wind farm and the twin seafront stalwarts of Brighton’s Palace Pier – ringing with the clink of slot machines and the whirl of rollercoasters – and West Pier – a burnt-out husk that teems with chattering seabirds in the early morning chill.

Earlier this week, the Centre hosted the British Neuroscience Association’s (BNA) 2023 Festival of Neuroscience. After an online-only edition of the Festival that highlighted both the technological achievements that made the COVID-19 pandemic bearable and the unavoidable limitations of digital conferencing, hundreds of neuroscientists walked through the Centre’s doors for four days of much-missed in-person networking and debate.

Cannabis and credibility

The conference’s parallel sessions, split over six tracks, featured presentations from across the field. On the conference’s first day alone, Nivedita Agarwal from IRCCS Eugenio Medea reviewed the radiological signs that demarcate imaging abnormalities produced by amyloid immunotherapies, Parkinson’s UK co-organized a session on mitochondrial dysfunction in neurodegeneration and pharma charity Drug Science reviewed the evidence behind medicinal cannabis. Later, a session on neuromodulation, featuring a case study of the first UK patient to benefit from epidural spinal cord stimulation, was frequently rocked by rounds of applause from the neighboring, fit-to-bursting session of rapid-fire poster talks.

The conference’s first day was capped with a timely and vital session on credibility in neuroscience, a topic that has been a pillar of the tenure of outgoing BNA CEO Anne Cooke. Credibility “change-makers” Russ Poldrack, from Stanford University, Saloni Krishnan from Royal Holloway and the Laboratory of Molecular Biology’s Madeline Lancaster highlighted efforts to enhance reproducibility and data sharing across the field – from neuroimaging studies to both in vivo and in vitro research. A final presentation from Mike Ashby, a senior lecturer at the University of Bristol, focused on improving statistical techniques in the field. Ashby acknowledged the ambition of pitching a stats-focused talk at the end of a 10-hour day of lectures, but nonetheless succinctly summarized the shortcomings in sample size and statistical methodology that the field shares with much of biology while directing the way to techniques that can restore rigor.

A plenary to be “flappauded”

The conference’s second day opened with a lecture from INSERM’s Stan Dehaene on the processing of language in the brain. “We have a symbolic mind,” said Dehaene, as he reviewed data on how primate and human minds analyze patterns and shapes – ultimately linking these behavioral findings to symbols and glyphs that are shared between cultures around the world.

The parallel sessions that followed featured more paradigm-spanning talks – a welcome session on the poorly promoted links between HIV and mental health featured presentations by Arish Mudra Rakshasa-Loots from the University of Edinburgh and Etheldreda Nakimuli-Mpungu. There was also room for educational reviews as well as deep dives into the literature – hugely valuable for the early career researchers present. These sessions included a panel discussion on making neuroscience practices more environmentally sustainable, a workshop on neuroscience education and a review of leading hypotheses within neuropsychiatry, such as the GABAA receptor hypothesis of anxiety and the serotonergic hypothesis of depression.

One of the day’s  and perhaps the conference's  most impactful events came at the close of Monday’s evening program. This session wasn’t a research review or unveiling of new findings, but a lived experience plenary, featuring the University of Edinburgh’s Sue Fletcher-Watson in conversation with Mary Doherty, a clinical research fellow at Brighton & Sussex Medical School and consultant anesthetist at Our Lady’s Hospital in Navan. Doherty, who is autistic, spoke in depth about how her diagnosis a decade earlier opened her eyes to how autism is studied within neuroscience. In exchanges delivered with frank honesty and weary humor, Doherty explained how the field’s medicalized terminology, which often positioned autism as a problem to be solved or even a disease to be cured, had grown increasingly removed from the real objectives that autistic people wanted to see achieved through research.

Too often, we’ve seen researchers who have built and maintained paradigms within the field that no longer help autistic people dismiss calls for change as censorship or obstruction of progress. Instead, Doherty showed how researchers can continue to help marginalized communities by championing research that addresses the everyday issues that autistic people face. The decision by the BNA to give a plenary slot to this kind of discussion, which is often conspicuous by its absence at academic conferences, must be applauded – or “flapplauded”, when the occasion calls for it.

The final full day of the program featured sponsored sessions by Epilepsy Research UK that highlighted genetic advances in our understanding of the condition, a deep dive into the role that single-cell models and organoids have in improving our understanding of neurodegeneration and a valuable session led by the editorial team at Inspire the Mind, a King’s College London-based resource that champions editorials by mental health researchers. The program found that hard-to-reach balance between current quandaries within the field – whether glia play a defining role in neurodegeneration – future questions – how visualization techniques can improve our understanding of the brain at a cellular level – and practical discussions that brought issues affecting every academic into the light – how will the ongoing revolution in open access publishing change where research is featured and found?

Fittingly, the conference was capped with a tribute to Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, who not only advanced the field with his research, but also tirelessly fought for science’s place within the social and political worlds that often collided with it. The first president of the BNA after its 1997 reformation, Blakemore was laureated by six prominent researchers who were all influenced by his work, including incoming BNA president and University of Edinburgh professor Tara Spires-Jones.

The 2023 edition of the Festival was a reminder of how vital the collaboration between researchers – the sinew and fiber that builds the body of academic conferences – is to solving the brain’s mysteries.