CNS 2013 Review

Last weekend marked my second attendance of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society conference, and I had a terrific time, each night full of drinking, wenching, gaming, brawling, dancing, freethinking, casuistry, and innumerable other vices. I dined on the best seafood that San Francisco had to offer, devouring breadbowls of clam chowder and pots of carmelized catfish and platters of sushi. I witnessed fights between sea lions, observed the Golden Gate bridge expand and contract in proportion to its temperature, and toured the Ghiradelli chocolate factory complex. Having access to a television for the first time in months, I watched the last half of S.W.A.T. and the first half of Face/Off, which, taken together, made for a satisfying, full-length action movie.

However, I also managed to find the time to go to some talks and posters detailing the latest findings in my field. A few trends I noticed:

1. Development and aging are hot right now, particularly since a large segment of the population is approaching old age and beginning to experience the effects of dementia, senescence, and increased irritability at perceived injustices, such as when your children fail to call you when they say that they will. I saw several posters looking at cognitive control effects over time, and how different interventions affected measures of executive function; and since the baby boomers are funding a large part of this research, so the importance of this field will continue to grow in proportion to their collective terror in the face of aging and its associated infirmities, creeping maladies seen from a distance yet unstoppable, as a man bound to a stake in the middle of a desert might feel as he is approached by irate wildlife.

2. Cognitive strategies such as mindfulness meditation and reappraisal are also hot right now; and although they might seem a bit faddish, the evidence of their efficacy is compelling. Expect to see more of these and their ilk increasingly applied across a wider variety of pathologies, such as depression, chronic pain, tinnitus, and addiction.

Lastly, while supping at the Ghiradelli chocolate factory with a postdoc, he mentioned that he was miffed by the lack of theory-driven experiments in several of the posters he saw. That is to say, several posters would lead in with a statement such as "Much research has been done on topic X. However, relatively little is known about Y...", with an experiment devoted to the effects of Y. In my colleague's opinion, this leads to a broadening of the field without refining or testing any of the existing theories. Indeed, if any think his fears to be unfounded, here I reprint an abstract seen at the conference which would appear to support his apprehensions about unfocused research endeavors:

Title: The neural correlates of pooping
Author: Will Brown, M.D., Ph.D.
Abstract: Pooping is an adaptive evolutionary behavior observed to occur across a wide range of species, including dogs, birds, armadillos, and humans, with evolutionary psychologists believing it to serve as a biomarker for fitness and reproductive success. Much research has been done on pooping, but to our knowledge this has not yet been systematically examined using FMRI. In our first study we scanned 28 participants while pooping. Robust activation was observed in bilateral pre-SMA, dorsal ACC, and bilateral insula, which we have dubbed the "pooping network". The second study scanned the same participants while they watched videos of other humans or robots either reading or pooping, creating a 2x2 factorial design. All poops were controlled for size, pungency, luminance, texture, and nuttiness, using the Jeff Goldblum Excrement Control Scale. The contrast of HumanPoops - RobotPoops was associated with activity in the superior temporal sulcus, consistent with this region's role in processing socially relevant actions. By contrast, a main effect of observing poops collapsed across humans and robots led to increased activation in the inferior frontal gyrus, premotor cortex, and parietal cortex, a finding similar to other studies investigating mirror neurons, suggesting that mirror neurons may be essential for helping organisms learn how to poop. These results better inform our understanding of pooping, and may lead to mindfulness meditation and cognitive reappraisal treatments for pooping-related disorders, such as constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and explosive diarrhea.

Clearly, some restraint is necessary when deciding what experiments to carry out, as there are an infinite number of questions to study, but which must, from time to time, be bound together under cohesive theories.

Overall, I had a great time, and am looking forward to CNS 2014!