Axol Bioscience sponsored Austrian Neuroscience Association (ANA) Student, Michael Stefan Unger to attend the 10th Forum for Neuroscience Societies (FENS), which took place in Copenhagen, Denmark. Michael is a PhD student at the Institute of Molecular Regenerative Medicine, Paracelsus Medical University in Salzburg, Austria. His PhD research focuses on cellular plasticity associated with amyloid-plaques and the potential role of neurogenic cells in modulating plaque pathology in Alzheimer's disease. Michael writes about his research and shares his experience of the conference.

An unexpected start to FENS 2016

Nearly 6000 neuroscientists were on their way to the amazing lecture hall A at the Bella Center in Copenhagen. They were hurrying so as not to be late for the opening ceremony of the 10th Forum for Neuroscience (FENS).

For me, a PhD student in his first year, it was the first time I had been to Copenhagen and attended the FENS, one of Europe’s largest neuroscience congresses. Already the size of lecture hall A was really impressive! Three screens were projecting the events on stage, so that nobody would miss any of the action or data presented.

The FENS 2016 started with an unexpected opening ceremony, at least for me. The actor, Peter Gantzler (known as Earl Ragnar in the TV series 'The Last Kingdom') welcomed neuroscientists from all over the world. He did a great job as comedian, breaking the ice and introducing himself to the scientific community. After a variety of neuroscience jokes, the musicians from 'Outlandish' entered the stage. For me sitting in the audience, starting a science congress with pop culture music was something totally unexpected and new! 

From famous pop culture to famous scientists

The conference was officially opened by FENS President, Monica Di Luca with a very warm welcome. However, the President of the FENS 2016 was not only present at the welcome ceremony, she and many others joined the FENS party, which took place in the middle of the one-week congress at the docks of Copenhagen. This party was a great opportunity to make new contacts with international scientists in a very informal environment.

The FENS 2016 scientific program was very attractive and well organized. For me, the presidential lecture from the Nobel Prize-awarded scientists, John O’Keefe and Edvard and May-Britt Moser was very impressive. Their work and discovery of the brain's navigation system (i.e. place and grid cells) was really fascinating to follow and their contribution to the congress was a real highlight.

"For me, a PhD student in his first year, it was the first time I had been to Copenhagen and attended the FENS, one of Europe’s largest neuroscience congresses!"

Lecture Hall at the Bella Center in Copenhagen, Denmark where FENS 2016 took place.

New advances in Alzheimer's disease research

Since I am currently a PhD student in my first year from Salzburg, Austria and working in the field of regenerative medicine, attending the FENS 2016 was the most exciting scientific experience for me so far. I was amazed by the diversity of scientists showing their posters with the data from their research. I am currently working in the field of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and was impressed by how many posters on AD were displayed in the immense poster hall.

AD and other forms of dementia belong to the group of neurodegenerative diseases affecting the mammalian brain that result in a loss of cognitive functions. As life expectancy has dramatically increased over the last 50 years, neurodegenerative diseases and associated dementias are on the rise.

A lot of research done in the past described the structural and functional changes that are observed in already advanced stages of AD pathology but very little is known about early changes in the brain that manifest before the major characteristics start to form (e.g. amyloid-beta plaques). I was astonished to see so many posters describing early changes in cortical and hippocampal brain regions of transgenic AD mouse models. The variety of research in this field reflects the enormous complexity of alterations observed already before the onset of the disease. Data showing altered hippocampal structures, metabolism and interneuron activity suggest these changes in the cortex and the hippocampus of AD brains, already contribute to the disease even before amyloid-beta plaque formation.

Researching PSEN1 in Alzheimer's disease

I myself research and work with a well-documented transgenic AD mouse model, APP-PS1, investigating changes in new neuron production in the hippocampal neurogenic niche referred to as adult hippocampal neurogenesis. This neurogenic niche is very sensitive to environmental changes and as such, local neural stem and progenitor cells respond to extrinsic and intrinsic stimuli, changing not only progenitor cell proliferation but also differentiation. A lot of data already confirmed altered neurogenesis levels in the brains of AD animals with severe amyloid pathology however, changes at prodromal time points have so far been largely ignored. It was amazing to see that other scientists from the around world, show similar findings and their data fit well with mine. Even though they have different objectives and methods, we are all working on the same issue.

To summarize, the 10th FENS was a great opportunity for me to get in contact with many other PhD students and neuroscientists, discuss our data and once more to broaden my field of view. Thanks again to Axol Bioscience for sponsoring this travel grant, it was a great experience for me, one that I will long remember. 


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