One of the key aims of our Centre is to communicate and collaborate with colleagues locally, nationally and internationally and a scientific conference is the ideal platform to do this. Prof. Richard Ribchester attended the Society for Neuroscience 2014 in Washington earlier this month and he was happy to give us an insight in to the event.
The annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) provides a forum for generating and discussing new ideas, based on the present state of knowledge in every conceivable area of contemporary neuroscience. This year the meeting was held in Washington DC, from 13-19 November. There were 31,263 attendees from 86 countries, 15,510 presenters and 13,837 posters. These included 228 presentations with either of the key motor neurone disease terms “ALS” or “SMA” embedded in their Abstracts, making this a highly significant conference for MND researchers.
Presentations ranged from new findings about genetic risk factors: for instance based on whole exome sequencing of the genomes of ALS patients, and a symposium devoted to discussion of the significance of C9orf72; to presentation of new animal models for investigation of mechanisms of familial forms of MND; to potential applications of optogenetics and stem-cells for producing and controlling neuromuscular regeneration in existing animal models; and to prosthetic devices and software designed to facilitate communication in paralysed patients, including those with MND. Hundreds of other papers on fundamental aspects of motor neurone cell biology, relevant to our understanding of MND, were also presented.
Prof. Ribchester’s own research focuses on the development and degeneration of synapses and neuronal connections and he reports some of his highlights of the meeting below:
- Symposia on mitochondria and “exosomes”. Mitochondria are increasingly under scrutiny on account of their involvement in generation of toxic reactive oxygen species, which also featured in several presentations on mechanisms of ALS. The function of exosomes, organelles that package RNA and protein for release and transfer to neighbouring cells, is a “hot topic” in contemporary cellular neuroscience. Former Edinburgh CNR PhD student Felipe Court, who now runs his own large research group in Chile, gave a detailed presentation of evidence from his laboratory on the role of these organelles in glial-axonal transfer of siRNA, including evidence that following axonal damage, cessation of this transfer may underpin a de-repression of growth promoting proteins in axons required for axonal sprouting and regeneration: critical compensatory processes that maintain neuromuscular function in the early stages of ALS.
- Inexorable progress towards a complete understanding of the mechanisms of neurotransmitter release by exocytosis at synapses. An outstanding lecture by one of the pioneers in the molecular biology of this process, Reinhardt Jahn, reviewed the current state of knowledge and progress towards understanding of the final link in the chain of causation and mechanism leading to fusion of a neurotransmitter-filled synaptic vesicle with the plasma membrane, releasing its contents onto specific receptors that control function. This is cutting-edge, fundamental neuroscience research but understanding the mechanisms are important for numerous conditions affecting the health of synapses, including motor neurone diseases such as ALS and SMA.
- The continuing evolution and proliferation of optogenetic tools for tracing neuronal circuits and defining their functions. These included channelrhodopsins with red-shifted excitation wavelengths (“CsChRimson”) for excitation and GCaMP6 for monitoring the cellular response in connected neurons. These molecular tools permit greater control and specificity for optical stimulation of interconnected neurons. Much of this basic research is being developed and applied to molecular toolmaking and microscopy for tracing neural circuits and their functions using fruit-flies (Drosophila) as an accessible model, at the Janelia Farm centre of research excellence, a Howard Hughes Institute located in Ashburn, Virginia. Optogenetics has already been exploited for controlling activity in motor neurons derived from stem cells by a group based at University College London. They have achieved successful, functional neuromuscular regeneration and control by transplanting stem-cell derived motor neurons laced with optogenetic sensors, using these sensors to control neuromuscular activity with pulses of light. So far, this approach has been highly successful in restoring muscle control in rodent models of MND/ALS; and the prospects for future translation to treatment of human ALS are therefore encouraging.
- Utilisation of natural, healthy brain activity for the control of prosthetic devices by patients whose limb movements are compromised. One intriguing line of research presented was utilization of “Google glasses”, coupled to EEG sensors, to enable paralysed patients whose eye movements remain intact to select text or visually presented objects, overlayed in a small region of the visual field, by observation and selection by thought of the desired option alone. The developers of this device have ALS patients in mind as their principle target group likely to benefit from this technology.