The Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) was founded in 1998 and aims to advance research and education in neuroscience, representing neuroscience research in the European Commission and other granting bodies. It represents 36 national and European neuroscience (mono-discipline) societies and has around 18,000 members.

The 8th FENS Forum was held in Barcelona 14-18 July, 2012. This biennial event provided a unique opportunity to meet and discuss the most recent advances in basic neuroscience and clinical research. Without doubt, FENS 2012 was a great success with 6,985 participants from 75 countries ranging from Argentina, Armenia and Australia to Uruguay, USA and Uzbekistan. The top five countries participating included Spain (1091), Germany (986), France (590) and the UK (542) with 451 attendees from the USA. Whilst not on the scale of the 2011 Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington with 31,000 attendees, FENS nevertheless has developed into one of the largest scientific meetings in Europe where representatives from all 32 member societies indulged in neuroscience in all its forms. The attraction for the world-wide audience was a combination of the programme, the location and for the UK contingent the weather, guaranteed sunshine. The programme included plenary and special lectures, a variety of symposia and technical workshops. A large part of the event was devoted to poster presentations (4,338 of the 4,459 abstracts submitted) but perhaps the major departure from previous fora was that all scientific information, except for the programme synopsis, was paperless. Assuming that you were savvy enough to have brought your wireless-enabled laptop, smartphone or tablet, the abstracts and the detailed programme were accessible through a variety of electronic tools including the extensive use of QR codes and ‘apps’. The programme alone, all 684 pages of it, would have been far too cumbersome to have carried around each day of the meeting.

The Host Society Committee, chaired by Maria del Mar Dierssen Sotos, had prepared an eclectic and inspirational programme of scientific and social events. Barcelona provided a truly magnificent venue with major attractions throughout the city. If you had time away from the science or had the good sense to add a few days to your visit you could have seen the UNESCO World heritage works of Antonio Gaudí dotted across Barcelona. Possibly Gaudí’s greatest achievement is the Sagrada Familia or Gaudí’s cathedral, the still unfinished monument to a mixture of gothic and art nouveau styles. The FENS meeting in Barcelona provided the perfect opportunity to meet colleagues from across the World to discuss research, more often in a ‘social setting’ for example the typically Catalan neighbourhood of Gràcia where public squares are surrounded by bars and a plethora of restaurants.

As with any large scientific meeting any attendee needs to plan ahead to be certain not to miss the most relevant talks or posters. There were, however, several distractions from my intended schedule, particularly on the emerging field of optogenetics. On Sunday I discovered how a worm no more than one millimetre long could help clarify the nature-nurture debate (Rockefeller University, USA) and how slow brain waves during sleep promote learning (Instituto de Investigaciones Biomédicas, Barcelona, Spain). On Monday I found out how to block traumatic memories by electrically stimulating the brain (Universidad Pablo de Olavide, Spain) and how neuroscientists are using optogenetics to map and study how the brain changes during addiction, and how these changes link to altered behaviour (University of Geneva, Switzerland). Dr Marta Navarette’s group in Spain described how astrocytes are necessary for memory and their involvement in drug addiction whilst Dr Karl Deisseroth from Stanford University elegantly demonstrated how optogenetics was taking the neuroscience world by storm by using a combination of genetics, optics, virology, microbial proteins and light to control neurons. Other interesting distractions included ‘inattention blindness’ and how for the first time, new technology allows geneticists to study all of a person’s genes, rapidly and accurately revealing the cause of learning disabilities, such as autism and schizophrenia. As a father to a teenage son I was not completely convinced that action video game players unwittingly train themselves in a wide range of attentional, cognitive, sensory, and spatial skills. However, Dr Daphne Bavelier’s research (University of Geneva, Switzerland) indicated that action video game playing does enhance a number of brain functions.

The FENS-IBRO Alumni Symposium on the role of body image and peri-personal space and pain suggested that pain perception goes beyond conscious detection of pain and that many people sense a disconnection from the painful region of their body arising from a complex interplay between the body and the brain’s internal map. As someone who was involved in the early development of deep brain stimulation I was also intrigued to know whether deep brain stimulation could be used to treat people with psychiatric disorders to alter their personality, how happiness could be induced and how psychiatrists face difficult dilemmas over where the line is drawn between therapy and enhancement. Dr Peter Uhlhaas (Max Plank Institute of Brain Research, Germany) gave an excellent explanation of why it’s not easy being a teenager. The physical and emotional development and the moods that mark the transition from adolescence to adulthood are revealed by new brain connections that occur, which may also be relevant to psychiatric disorders.

Undoubtedly for me the highlight of the meeting was the FENS-EJN Awards Lecture given by Barry Everitt (Cambridge) describing how “Dynamically shifting neural circuitries underlie addictive behaviour”. In it he showed how drug addiction is characterised by the compulsive seeking and taking of drugs. Using rats he demonstrated that in order to take on the characteristics of a stimulus-response habit and ultimately emerge as compulsive, depends upon shifting striatal circuitries.

Finally I would like to thank Sociedad Española de Neurociencia for hosting such a memorable event.

If you are interested further details of the meeting can be obtained from

Accessing the scientific programme using a QR code and an app’ of your choice.

The author indulging in some rest during a busy schedule.