Keeping up with Brain Mapping

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It is so hard to keep up with the amount of information that’s coming your way in today’s digital world. To keep up with the explosion of scientific information that is presently out there, one of the geeky things scientists like to do is gather together for scientific conferences. Such conferences provide a good way to get exposed to the hottest current trends and ideas in the field and give you a window into the future of scientific progress. Just as birds migrate south for the winter, brain mappers gather each summer for the Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM). Last year I told you about our meeting with the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. This year the meeting migrated to the beautiful Vancouver, Canada. The city offered us picture perfect weather and many fun venues. However, the tone of the conference was set by several keynote addresses that kept us in the Convention Center despite the charm of the city. Because we want you, the public, to be up to speed with the latest in human brain mapping, here are short snippets of what those keynotes were about:

  1. Do the brain connections that we don’t need disappear as we age (a sort of “use-it-or-lose-it” approach), or do they become specialized as we encounter new and important things in our environment? Dr. Kalanit Grill-Spector looked at something that humans are really good at—recognizing faces—to answer the above question. Her research revealed that there is cortical tissue growth during development rather than a reduction, or pruning, which was the widespread belief in the field prior to her work.
  2. Words of caution about over-interpretation and reproducibility of findings in psychology and neuroimaging can be heard quite often nowadays. Dr. Tal Yarkoni explained how a specific scientific experiment can be used to argue in support of a general claim about the human brain – suggesting improved experimental and statistical analysis methods.
  3. Big data is a sexy term right now, including within the brain mapping community. Dr. Karla Miller stressed the importance of understanding different facets of brain function and structure from micro-scale to systems-level, particularly drawing attention to such initiatives as the Human Connectome Project and the UK Biobank.
  4. Dr. Damien Fair showcased how environmental stressors early in life might contribute to the prediction of development of mental illness as well as changes in functional connectivity of the default mode network in infants.
  5. Dr. Marsel Mesulam talked about the history and current knowledge of aphasia and Wernicke’s area, a brain area discovered by Carl Wernicke in 1874 in association with problems in sentence and word comprehension. Contrary to what Wernicke postulated, modern brain mappers showed that word and sentence comprehension actually depend on different brain areas and disconnection between language network areas.
  6. Every moment in our lives, no matter how inconsequential, we need to make decisions based on the options presented in front of us. Dr. Christian Ruff discussed how perceptual, motivational, and social aspects of our environment influence human decision making and brain processes, particularly focusing on a combination of neuroimaging and brain stimulation methods (using transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, a machine that sends a magnetic pulse to the skull to stimulate the brain).
  7. Imagine a child chasing a ball through the streets, not paying attention to the surroundings, or a student texting during a lecture. These examples demonstrate selective attention, which is the focus of Dr. Kia Nobre’s research who proposed a new idea of ‘preperception’, focusing on how our own expectations and biases can influence cognitive processes and brain activity within our own memory representations.

Even beyond the keynote lectures, OHBM 2017 was a really exciting meeting, chock full of groundbreaking research and new ideas openly shared by brain mappers from around the world. The twitter page of OHBM 2017 provided yet another place for brain mappers to connect: commentaries were abundant, with attendees sharing session highlights, photos, and posters. Until it’s time for the next meeting, stay tuned for more reporting from us regarding fun and exciting brain mapping research throughout the year.

Ekaterina Dobryakova is a member of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping and writes for the Communications/Media Team. The OHBM Media Team brings cutting edge information and research on the human brain to your laptops, desktops and mobile devices in a way that is neurobiologically pleasing. For more like this, follow or @OHBMSci_News

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