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Keeping a healthy brain

There has been an "exponential" growing interest in brain research over recent years, according to Ann Kato, co-organiser of the Geneva forum teamwork

How do nicotine and sleep boost memory, why are some people's ageing brains in better shape than others and what are the ethical challenges of new brain research?

This content was published on July 15, 2008 - 17:58

These are just some of the burning questions and developments being discussed at the Forum of European Neuroscience in Geneva, which runs until Wednesday.

Some 5,000 neuroscientists are attending the four-day conference, organised by the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies and hosted by the Swiss Society for Neuroscience.

The meeting is focusing on four main areas of research: brain development and learning; stem cell therapy and spinal cord repair; memory, recognition, speech, hearing, sight and perception; and depression, stress and hormones.

The large number of young scientists and journalists in Geneva is a reflection of the "exponential" growing interest in neuroscience, explained Ann Kato, professor of neuroscience at Geneva University, who also presided the forum.

"Neuroscience touches every aspect of our lives – our personality, memory and behaviour," she told swissinfo. "People are extremely interested in knowing what's happening to their brain and the difficulties this could produce for their health in the future."

Huge advances have been made in neuroscience in recent years, benefiting from technological developments such as magnetic resonance imaging, which has become much more powerful and precise.

"Some 20-30 years ago we couldn't understand what was happening to our brains as we didn't have the tools, but now because of imaging techniques we can look very closely into the brain to see which parts are involved in which functions," explained Kato.

Switzerland boasts one of Europe's top institutes, the Centre for Biomedical Imaging in Lausanne, which is currently trying to create a high-resolution map of the most important fibres in the human brain.

"We also know a great deal more about genes so we can trace people who've had family genetic problems...and now that we have stem cells there is huge interest in regenerative medicine," said Kato.

Sleep on it

As the world's population gets steadily older, memory and ways of maintaining a healthy brain are becoming hot research topics.

Swiss scientists this week presented research that showed that a good night's sleep had a dramatic impact on the way the brain functioned the next day.

"Our results revealed that a period of sleep following a new experience could consolidate and improve subsequent effects of learning from the experience," said lead researcher Sophie Schwartz from the University of Geneva.

Other startling ways of boosting memory were also revealed.

A team of London scientists presented clues for the potentially therapeutic benefits of nicotine on learning, memory and attention. Its effects could form the basis for new drugs to stave off Alzheimer's disease.

And presenting her research into how older minds stay young, Michela Gallagher from John Hopkins University in the United States explained how her team had discovered a whole set of molecular and cellular changes in rats that help maintain a healthy brain over time.

"We were surprised to find that the brain is programmed to allow for successful ageing by a series of adaptations in cells and molecules...they are changes that take place as we age normally that allow the brain to perform optimally at older ages," she explained.

It is hoped this new approach will lead to better understanding how to promote successful ageing.

Ethical approach

A German team also presented an emerging hypothesis that neural stem cells help keep the brain healthy and active. Stimulating new neurons might be a way to deal with psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and dementia.

Another emerging issue is the ethics of neuroscience - neuroethics. New technology has the potential to predict not only neurodegenerative diseases but also to delve into our thoughts and reveal patterns of behaviour.

"This is causing a huge debate," said Kato. "People are saying how far should we go with this over issues like insurance, law or at work; one day you might have to give information about your genes and then later about your brain."

"The excitement of neuroscience is its fast pace. There are some fantastic opportunities right ahead of us, but we must not ignore some of the dangers of misuse that run in parallel," said Judy Illes from the University of British Colombia, co-founder of the Neuroethics Society.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS)

The Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) represents national European neuroscience societies and several monodisciplinary societies, which have some 17,000 members.

FENS was founded in 1998 at the Forum of European Neuroscience in Berlin and is the successor organisation of ENA, the European Neuroscience Association.

Over 5,000 scientists attended the sixth Forum of European Neuroscience in Geneva, which hosted 3,700 "poster presentations" by doctorate students and 500 individual conferences.

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Swiss neuroscience

Switzerland has a fast-growing neuroscience community: the Swiss Society for Neuroscience has more than 1,000 members.

According to the American journal Science, the Lake Geneva region is considered to be the third most important study centre in Europe for neuroscience behind Oxford and Cambridge in Britain.

There is close cooperation and interaction between Geneva and Lausanne universities and university hospitals, and the Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, with more than 80 neuroscience research groups.

Zurich also has a joint neuroscience centre creating synergies between some 440 neuroscientists, or 100 research groups, at the Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, and the Zurich University.

Switzerland was chosen to host the sixth Forum of European Neuroscience based on the strength of its neuroscience research and infrastructure.

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