BNA 2013: Festival of Neuroscience

Conference details: 7-10 April, 2013, London, UK.

When was the last time you attended a neuroscience conference where the first thing you saw as you entered was a VW camper van? The camper van, the ‘Spaceship of Our Imagination’ was a cinema which showed films about the brain. But if you wondered whether you were in the right place, then a huge model of the brain a few yards away left you in no doubt. This, then, was the BNA 2013: Festival of Neuroscience, the British Neuroscience Association’s biennial conference – but this time, it was a unique event. In parallel with a superb scientific programme, posters and an exhibition, was a public programme of events put on by the Wellcome Trust.

In partnership with 18 organisations with an interest in brain research, the Festival attracted around 2000 UK and international delegates to hear from almost 240 speakers and seven plenary lectures. The Festival was the most ambitious conference the BNA has organised and unusually, in an arts venue. The Barbican in London is one of Europe’s leading arts centres and was ideal to bring together academics and members of the public to celebrate and explore the brain. The scientific programme was about twice the size of previous meetings, and included topics grouped into eight broad themes that covered most areas in neuro- science.The plenary speakers were leading figures in their fields and included Uta Frith, David Attwell, Micheal White, Karen Steele,Irene Tracey, Yves Agid and Tim Bliss.

The programme included no fewer than 56 specialist symposia and workshops organ- ised into parallel sessions, and there were about 750 poster presentations organised into three poster sessions.The Abstract and Programme e-books are now available on the BNA website. Coverage was broad, but some themes contributed particularly strongly to the programme. Traditionally well represented topics such as ‘Nervous System Disorders’ and ‘Molecular, Cellular and Synaptic Mechanisms’ together contributed to over 40% of the programme, but there were also some new trends: for the first time about 20% of posters and talks came under the ‘Cognition’ theme.

Although there were a large number of conference delegates from London and the South East, we were pleased to see that the numbers from other UK and international locations were higher than those in previous meetings, with visitors from as far afield as India, China, North America, and Australia. None of this would have been possible without the support of our sponsors. Our major sponsor was the Wellcome Trust. Others included the UK Research Councils, technology and pharmaceutical companies who populated the exhibition hall. Non- profit organisations and charities also displayed their information.

The press office was a hub of high activity. More than 50 national and journalists attended from TV and radio, newspapers, science jour- nals and generated media coverage around the world. As well as the delegates, between 4000 and 5000 members of the public came to the Barbican to see the public programme,Wonder: Art and Science on the Brain, an astonishing array of demonstrations, discussions and debates. Comedian Ruby Wax discussed her battle with depression with BBC’s Claudia Hammond, and Anders Bjorklund, stem cell pioneer from Lund University told the public about the problems and prospects of stem cell therapy for Parkinson’s disease.

Public and delegates alike enjoyed the Festival. The public were entranced by what they discovered, and the scientists were inspired not only by the science, but also by the idea of a Festival of Neuroscience for everyone.

BNA Neuroscience Summit

According to the European Brain Council (EBC),1 brain disorders in Europe are estimated to cost ?798 billion and affect one-third of the population. Inevitably, the burden will increase as more people live longer. The Neuroscience Summit brought together leaders who can influence policy and generate new initiatives for research into disorders of the brain and their treatment.

Co-hosted by the EBC and the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP), the Summit took place at the Royal Society in London and was chaired by BBC presenter Quentin Cooper. It was clear that neuroscience is widely viewed as a priority. Indeed, we received state- ments of support from Prime Minister David Cameron and from the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts. Setting the scene, Mary Baker (EBC) called for us to strengthen research and develop a strong European platform for both basic and clinical brain research. Hugh Perry (MRC) and Melanie Welham (BBSRC) outlined the Research Councils’ strategies.

The MRC aims to fund innovative science that seeks insight and effective interventions for these disorders,while the BBSRC funds a wide range of world-class underpinning bioscience research, including neuroscience. Representing industry, Gary Gilmour (Lilly UK) outlined the Novel Methods leading to New Medications in Depression and Schizophrenia (NEWMEDS) project, a European Union Innovative Medicines Initiative industrial–academic collaboration targeting neuropsychiatric disorders. Understanding the brain is one of the Wellcome Trust’s five major research challenges, and John Williams outlined the Trust’s extensive portfolio of neuro- science and mental health research. Richard Morris (University of Edinburgh) provided concluding comments to the morning session.

The discussion moved on to ‘working together to maximise developments’ and Colin Blakemore (University of London) proposed that to achieve the optimal balance between competition and cooperation requires new approaches to the organisation, funding, dissemination and assessment of scientific research. Endorsing the idea of collaboration, Jackie Hunter (OI Pharma) suggested that, given the advances in many areas of preclinical and clinical research, it is now timely to explore collaborative models to maximise the impact of R&D in neuroscience.

Sharmila Nebhrajani (Association of Medical Research Charities) covered the different ways charities involve patients in setting research strategies and why this is important. The ECNP, said David Nutt, is addressing issues arising from the recent scaling back of neuroscience research by pharmaceutical companies. The new BNA President, Russell Foster, suggested that the BNA can help the neuroscience community take advantage of the opportunities and mitigate the challenges to deliver scientific excellence. It can act as a catalyst to promote education in the neurosciences at all levels.The afternoon’s presentations were summarised by Trevor Robbins (University of Cambridge).

A Report is now being produced which will be circulated to the UK government, the European Parliament, research funders and other interested parties.This will contain action points and guidance that we hope will be taken forward by charities, companies and patient groups with an interest in the brain.


1. Gustavsson A et al. Cost of disorders of the brain in Europe 2010. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2011;21(10):718–79.

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