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Bird, mouse and fish learning discussed at MIT neuroscience symposium

Birds that are genetically programmed to sing, the effect of pheromones on the mouse brain, and fear conditioning in Japanese fish were some of the topics covered by an international contingent of respected brain researchers at the fourth Picower-RIKEN Neuroscience Symposium held at MIT from Sept. 22-24.

"New Frontiers in Brain Science: From Molecules to Mind" attracted dozens of researchers and students to two and half days of talks and posters on the latest advances in understanding "the most complex machine on the face of the planet," as Susumu Tonegawa, director of the Picower Center for Learning and Memory, described the brain.

Tonegawa dedicated this year's symposium to the late Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix. In addition to studying genetics, Crick sought to discover the nature of consciousness. He hypothesized that all human emotion, thought and identity is no more than the end product of a "vast assembly of nerve cells and their assorted molecules."

To shed light on how these cells and molecules work, researchers from Stanford, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, the RIKEN Brain Sciences Institute in Japan and other institutions gave talks on topics ranging from how brain cells communicate to how primates acquire language acquisition. Other talks focused on the molecular mechanisms underlying addiction and memory.

One of the two keynote speakers, Mark Konishi of the California Institute of Technology, spoke about the brain mechanisms that allow some songbirds to memorize a song when still too young to sing, and when the song they are being taught is an artificial, computer-generated series of notes. These birds use special areas within their brains to listen to themselves as they learn to ensure uncanny accuracy to the original. This kind of knowledge, Konishi said, may be used to uncover the molecular and cellular substrates essential for learning.

Keynote speaker Thomas Sudhof of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center spoke about the molecular "machinery" of how neurotransmitters are released in the brain.

Among the speakers was Matthew Wilson, MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and a RIKEN investigator, who spoke about how a commonly recorded electrical frequency in the brain may help different brain regions synchronize the process of remembering sequential events.

RIKEN is a major sponsor of the annual symposium series, which brings together internationally renowned researchers representing broad areas of neuroscience in a forum open to students and scientists of the Greater Boston area. This year, the symposium also received corporate sponsorship from Merck Research Laboratories and AstraZeneca.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 6, 2004 (download PDF).

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