Connecting European Neuroscience

The Brain Conference on Learning, Memory and Synaptic Plasticity: Q&A with the co-chairs

Registration is open for the Brain Conference on Learning, Memory and Synaptic Plasticity, which takes place in Rungstedgard, near Copenhagen, Denmark, 23-26 April 2017. FENS talked to conference co-organisers 2016 Brain Prize winner Richard Morris and Robert Malenka about what is special about the meeting.

1. Last year’s Brain Prize was won for ‘breakthroughs in understanding the cellular and molecular basis of long-term potentiation, a form of synaptic plasticity that underpins special memory and learning’. In what way is this meeting linked to the prize?

Richard and Rob: The topic of the Brain Prize is the springboard for the meeting, but our themes extend well beyond the specifics of the Brain Prize citation.  We shall start with a state-of-the-art review of research on long-term potentiation (LTP) and long-term depression (LTD), including presentations by world leaders in the field, but move on to other related topics. These include the maintenance of LTP and of memory, especially by synaptic tagging-and-capture mechanisms, then the tagging and later optogenetic re-activation of memory traces (‘engrams’), and finally into various applied and translational aspects of neuronal plasticity. It is a well-rounded but interlinked programme. 

2. There have been so many conferences on learning and memory – what makes this one so scientifically special?

Richard and Rob: Many specialist meetings focus on a specific level of analysis – such as physiological and biochemical analyses of LTP.  However, to understand a mechanism fully, it helps to have a sense of its wider behavioural or cognitive function – and thinking about this was at the heart of our planning of the meeting.  A case in point is putting together current research on synaptic plasticity with modern molecular-genetic approaches to engrams, as is exploring the wider relevance of neuronal plasticity to clinical issues. It should make for an exciting meeting with a sense of the big picture. 

3. You have lined up a strong cast of speakers. Is there an active place for young scientists?

Richard and Rob: Yes – it is a very strong cast of speakers from all over the world.  In addition to leading figures, we have identified emerging talent from such groups as the FENS-Kavli Scholars, Wellcome Trust Fellows, and mid-career staff at several major institutes and universities across the world. In addition, we have deliberately created opportunities for some speakers to be drawn from the registrants who submit posters. 

4. What is special about the format and location of the meeting?

Richard and Rob: We anticipate a meeting of about 150 at the spectacular Rungstedgard site – a beautiful old house by the fjord now converted into a modern conference centre.  The ambience of the place and the  generous time for discussion should enable younger scientists to mingle successfully with leading figures. There are some fun social events too.

5. What remains to be discovered in learning and memory – and when will we get there?

Richard: The heart of current research includes the problem of neural representation and that of how distinct neural circuits process the different types of information underlying diverse forms of learning and memory.  Synaptic and neural plasticity are key engines of information storage, but understanding their operation within distinct circuits of excitatory, inhibitory and neuromodulatory neurons is the key challenge for the coming years.  

Rob: There is an enormous amount we don’t know. We know relatively little about the detailed molecular mechanisms underlying the delivery and stabilization of AMPA receptors during LTP; the molecular mechanisms underlying the spine growth that accompanies LTP; how trans-synaptic interactions via synaptic cell adhesion molecules contribute to LTP and LTD; and in fact, the complex signal transduction cascades that trigger LTP and LTD.   We don’t understand how and why different types of synapses express different forms of LTP and LTD. And we are also still in the early days of  figuring out exactly how changes in synaptic strength combined with other cellular phenomena generate “engrams” and how these change over the course of time yet can be retrieved over days, months or even decades. 

For more information on The Brain Conference and to register, visit the webpage

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