New Orleans on neurosteriods: Society for Neuroscience Conference 2012

If you ever thought you attended a large conference (±5000 attendees), you have never been to SfN.. Last week almost 30,000 neuroscientists travelled to New Orleans, USA, from all over the world to attend the annual SfN conference.

The conference started for most on the way to New Orleans chatting to fellow scientists on the plane, who were easily picked out as the ones carrying poster tubes. New Orleans, with its enormous convention centre, was well equipped to accommodate the almost 30,000 neuroscientists walking around. The main lecture theatre where all public lectures were given could accommodate up to 10,000 people and the poster and exhibition hall spanned four large halls where you could spend hours being entertained by poster presenters as well as companies. Walking from the main lecture hall to the far away nano-symposium rooms could take as long as twenty minutes.

The inhabitants of New Orleans were also not oblivious to SfN 2012 as banners were lined up all the way from Canal street to the convention centre and as neuroscientists were prominently present in all hotels and restaurants, with or without their conference badge on.

The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) is the largest non-profit membership organisation for physicians and scientists who study the brain and the nervous system. Their journal, The Journal of Neuroscience is a leading journal in the field of neurosciences. The public lectures and advocacy forum will soon be available to watch on SfN’s YouTube channel.


Cambridge was well represented at the conference with approximately 80 scientists presenting their data and with Professor Barry Everitt (Department of Psychology), Dr Jeff Dalley (Department of Psychology and Psychiatry), and Dr Michael Hastings (Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology) on the Program Committee for SfN 2012. Dr Hastings rotated on the Committee this year and will help with the organisation of next year’s meeting.

Prof Everitt was this year’s Program Committee Chair and Dr Dalley was the Chair for Theme F Cognition and Behaviour. According to Dr Dalley, this year’s SfN saw one of the largest abstract submissions in its history with over 16,500 scientists sending in abstracts from all over the world. Dr Dalley, who has been on the Committee for the last two years explained that the Program Committee jobs include organising the special lectures, the content of symposia and mini-symposia and organising short courses and other sessions. The biggest job is sessioning, where each Program Committee member receives around 500 abstracts to evaluate for scientific quality and newsworthiness, which are then arranged into logical sessions

Dr Dalley on his work in the program committee and as Theme Chair: “As a member of the Program Committee you not only take on responsibility for the organization of the meeting itself, you also assess how things are running during the meeting and get feedback from attendees […] [It is a] great committee to be on because it gives you the opportunity to structure the meeting, to have some say about your subject and make sure it is in the meeting”.

Professor Melissa Hines (Department of Psychology) gave a special lecture on “Sexual differentiation of human brain and behaviour”. Professor Barbara Sahakian (Department of Psychiatry) gave the David Kopf Lecture on Neuroethics entitled “The impact of neuroscience on society: The neuroethics of ‘smart drugs’ ”. Professor Sahakian also co-organised the 22nd Neuropharmacology Conference, a satellite conference of SfN 2012 and she also helped organise the Neuroethics Social together with several other leading scientists among whom Professor Everitt.


The SfN conference is not only a great conference to present your data and meet scientists from all over the world it is mostly a great place to network and meet people in your field that you would not have the opportunity of meeting otherwise. In the evenings SfN and non-SfN related socials bring together groups of scientists interested in the same topic (for example the Behavioural Neuroendocrinology Social or the Cell Death Social) or provide an opportunity to meet up with old friends or make new ones such as at the “Association for Women in Science Dessert Reception” and socials for neuroscientists from specific countries, regions or even alumni receptions of universities from all over the world.

Jan Freyberg, one of the first-year PhD students of the Department of Psychiatry, presented a poster at SfN: “As my first scientific conference ever, SfN was really quite something to start off with. The anxiety that you get when you first put up your poster and wait for people to come and quiz you feels all the more salient when you just saw some of the most eminent scientists in your field walk past twenty minutes earlier.”

“SfN is a very exciting place to be at. A Dutch neuroscientist I met there told me he thinks it is one of the best conferences to go to early on in your career. Having nothing to compare it to, I will have to take his word for it. SfN gives you the chance to hear about the newest discoveries and the latest techniques, plunging you into the deep end of neuroscience frontiers. And because so many people showed up in New Orleans, everyone was meeting old friends and randomly bumping into people they know from way back.”

“There was an incredible amount of excitement in the air that you could not help but catching, and maybe that is what he really meant as being great for fresh-faced grad students.”