Cognitive Neuroscience Society 2009 Review

cns2009I had a great time at the 2009 meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) last weekend. This is a conference that I try to attend every year, and I have been successful in that goal for six years now. Below is a list of highlights from the conference. I want to take just a second to thank my postdoc adviser Mike Miller for letting me go. I also want to thank the Institute of Collaborative Biotechnology for funding the trip.

SUNDAY

• One of the best sessions on Sunday was a symposium discussing the integration of genetics, cognitive neuroscience, and psychology. It was hosted by an old friend of mine from grad school, Adam Green, and featured several top researchers in the field of cognitive neurogenetics. The findings that they were presented were quite interesting in terms of relating genetic variability to brain and behavior, but the most important part of the session was the feeling that genetics was going to be one of the ‘next big things’ in cognitive neuroscience. In the Miller Lab we have been able to identify roughly 50% of the variability in human episodic memory using behavior and functional imaging. Hearing now that the remaining 50% of variance may be genetic really makes me believe that this is something worth pursuing further.

Before this session there really hasn’t been a lot of discussion of genetic factors at CNS. It will be interesting to see how this evolves in the next several years. My prediction is that next year will see an uptick in the number of posters and presentations addressing genetic variability. Then, in two years there will be an explosion of posters and presentations incorporating genetic data.

Thought-provoking tidbit from the genetics session: Andreas Papassotiropoulos discussing the need to look for interactions in genetic data. Essentially, his point was that most current research is focused on finding direct gene to behavior correlations. He argued that there is the need to look at the influence of gene clusters to better understand how genetic factors interact.

Marcus Raichle received the George A. Miller prize in cognitive neuroscience this year. He is a huge figure in the field of cognitive neuroscience – it is hard to think of a researcher more deserving of this honor. I was particularly excited to attend this lecture because I hadn’t seen Raichle speak before. I think it would be accurate to say that he is the father of ‘default mode’ research, a topic that is proving to be a rich area of inquiry. He did discuss default mode research in his talk, but the more interesting aspect of his lecture was the timeline he presented of how cognitive neuroscience and the cognitive neuroscience society came into being. He told stories of how the idea for the society was formed in the back of a taxicab, and how the startup funding for the society came from Mike Gazzaniga’s credit card. Cognitive neuroscience is a relatively young field, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks history. Raichle’s talk was a rare opportunity to learn how it came together many years ago.

MONDAY

My favorite session on Monday was the Emotion slide presentations, hosted by Kevin Ochsner. The slide presentations are a new addition to CNS that are designed to give outstanding research a wider audience. I think that it is a great change, and I appreciate that the CNS organizers continue to help the conference evolve to better serve the community.

• One excellent presentation was by Virginie Czernecki, a researcher with Inserm at Salpetriere Hospital in Paris. She showed data from a group of patients with insular damage demonstrating that they had deficits in unpleasant, irritating, and gustative emotion identification. The lesion focus of each patient was variable, limiting the spatial identification of what brain structure was causing the changes in behavior. Still, they showed the effects of insular damage across a range of tasks involving facial affect, odor identification, and working memory. Good stuff.

• Another presenter I wanted to mention was Tor Wager. He spoke on a re-analysis of a placebo analgesia dataset using a new multivariate analysis designed to identify functional networks of brain regions. I wanted to mention his talk primarily because it represented the best integration of technical imaging methods applied to an empirical question that I saw at the conference. Don’t get me wrong, there were many presentations that had worthy scientific investigations and many posters that had excellent new methods, but it is rare to see the two so well joined together. I think that his approach is quite analogous to how I hope to conduct my own research: a fusion of advanced methods applied to interesting questions.

• On Monday evening I went around the poster session doing a count of how many researchers used multiple comparisons correction in their analyses. George Wolford and I are wrapping up the final drafts of a new paper arguing in favor of correction and we wanted to get a feel for what percent of people are using it. Of the 42 posters that used a whole-brain, general linear model (GLM) approach only 9 posters used any kind of multiple comparisons correction. That’s rather sad. Worse was that some researchers who used techniques like FDR and FWE to do correction would sometimes revert to uncorrected stats if no activity was detected. I am trying to decide which is worse – not doing correction at all or doing correction only when it shows what you want. I think that our paper is going to hit at just the right time – now we just need to get it out.

TUESDAY

• The highlight of the day (personally) was the presentation of my poster at the morning session. Since it was a methods poster on the last day of the conference I wasn’t sure how many people would stop by. There is nothing more lonely than standing beside your research for two hours with nobody giving your title a second glance. I was fortunate this year in that I had a steady stream of folks stopping by, with some individuals quite interested. The research I presented had to do with the impact of experimental design on the ability to detect individual differences in fMRI activity. It turns out that some experimental designs may be better than others for getting at what makes us all different. Because experimental design is a topic of general interest I think the poster was able to pull in a diverse array of researchers who are looking to investigate individual differences. By any measure it was a very successful poster. Now, as always, the goal is to get it written up as a manuscript.

• The second highlight of the day was a talk on the representation of body postures by another friend from grad school, Emily Cross. She gave a great presentation on the separable roles of the mirror action system and the extrastriate body area. Also, she was one of the only researchers I saw all weekend who used a repetition suppression fMRI design in their research. Kudos to her for a great presentation.

OTHER NOTES

– The best part about attending conferences like CNS is the opportunity to catch up with friends and acquaintances from other academic institutions. Nobody in academia ever seems to stay put for very long, which makes reunions like CNS all the more special. The first night of the conference is a frenzy of people seeing each other for the first time in a long time. I love it.

– San Francisco is an amazing town. I have probably visited the city a dozen times and it never gets old. It is probably my favorite big city in the US. Which is good, because I have two more conferences there this spring.

– If you happen to find yourself in San Francisco you should eat at the House of Nanking, situated between Chinatown and North Beach. Simply amazing Asian/American food. I would also recommend Chow on Church Street in the Castro district. They have a real focus on healthy dining with an eye toward responsible cooking. The kicker is that the food is absolutely amazing. Check them out if you are around.

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