I had an amazing opportunity to visit the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting Sunday in Washington, D.C. This is the largest annual neuroscience conference in the world, attracting more than 30,000 participants. One of the Society’s leaders, Dr. Jennifer Raymond, a Stanford professor, briefed me on her research and introduced me to several of her colleagues from around the country, who in turn gave me briefings on their research. Dr. Raymond and the others were thrilled to show off their excellent work to me, a member of Congress who is also a scientist and actually studied technical neuroscience and could therefore more fully appreciate their work.
Dr. Raymond is involved in circuit level research, as opposed to research on individual neurons. Her circuit level research focuses on memory formation. How do the neural circuits respond to new information to form the new connections constituting new memories. This involves understanding how new information flows and causes neurons to make new connections while filtering out information that may be extraneous and not disrupting existing memory information. Fascinating but very complicated.
Dr. Raymond first introduced me to Dr. Philip Sabes, a professor at UCSF. Dr. Sabes and his students shared a presentation with me on helping people who lost neural communication to limbs regain motor control. For example, spine injuries or trauma to joints may cause someone to lose control of an arm. The brain still knows how to control the arm and hand, but it cannot communicate commands to that limb. After inserting an array of electrodes into the brain of non-human primates, Dr. Sabes’ team has been able to teach the primate some control of the limb. Research is progressing with funding from the National Institute of Health and DARPA.
Next, I met Dr. Jennifer Groh of Duke University and one of her students, Keith Gruters. They study the relationship between hearing and vision by looking at eye movements in monkeys and humans and how these movements might influence auditory processes. Keith was so excited in his presentation that Dr. Groh had to gently encourage him a couple of times to quickly arrive at the conclusion. I deeply appreciate this kind of enthusiasm.
I was then introduced to Dr. Jose Carmena, a professor at U.C. Berkeley, and his team of researchers. Dr. Carmena gave me a brief introduction to his work, which uses light impulses in the brain of mice to get them, with training, to control elements outside their bodies, such as having sugar water provided.
The last scientist I met with was my daughter, Dr. M. Windy McNerney, a postgraduate researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. She is involved in research of individual neurons at the lab, and her presentation involves studying the effects of toxins on neurons to prevent neural damage of agents such as sarin gas.
It isn’t often that I have the opportunity to visit a scientific conference of this stature and to meet with a small collection of the top researchers for personal briefings. The research is impressive and has the potential to transform care for people who have suffered traumatic injuries, such as veterans, but will result in many other advances in technology as well. I appreciate the time these scientists took with me, their graciousness, and the enthusiasm and diligence of their work. They were careful to point out to me how important the president’s initiative on neuroscience has been in moving promising research forward, not only in direct funding, but in matching funding from universities around the country as well as other sources. DARPA has also been a reliable funding mechanism that is responsive to good research proposals as well as requiring results for continued funding.
I have always supported scientific research as one of the investments our nation can make that will pay the taxpayer back many-fold, creating jobs and keeping us ahead of foreign competition. There was some concern voiced that with funding remaining flat and lab expenses increasing, our nation is beginning to see a small amount of brain drain to institutions outside our country that provide well-funded situations.
I truly enjoyed the visit at Neuroscience 2014, although some of the information was a bit over my head, and I will work as hard as I can to make sure this and other basic research continues to receive funding in this country. I also want to thank Brittany Meyer, an attorney at the Society of Neuroscience who has a BS in neuroscience and who made sure my visit went smoothly.