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AD/PD 2019, Lisbon

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This year, the 14th International Conference on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Diseases (AD/PD) was hosted in Lisbon. As always, it offered a big platform to allow scientists focusing on the research of neurodegenerative disorders to exchange their most recent results. While the conference mainly focuses on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, there are also small sections in regards to ALS and Huntington’s research.
The last meeting took place in Vienna two years ago and got a lot of attention with possible AD treatments - in the form of antibodies against APP plaques - right around the corner. Alas, two weeks prior to this year's conference, a study found those antibodies to not relieve the symptoms of AD despite removal of the plaques. Unfortunately, this revelation somewhat loomed over the entire conference.
As a PD researcher myself, a visit of this venue seemed mandatory to say the least. While there are many meetings and conferences on neurodegeneration, most of them do not hold the same reputation as the AD/PD conference, likely due to its very long history reaching back to the 80’s and its very focused topic.

So, let’s jump right into the scientific prospects of this year’s meeting. When planning to venture on a big scale meeting like AD/PD, preparation is key. Since so many talks happen simultaneously, it is imperative to carefully look across the schedule and figure out which talks to attend. For me, this sometimes meant jumping between different sessions and thus, I had to plan ahead and know the location of each auditorium. However, I only really did it this way on the first day of the meeting since, honestly, it turned out to be very exhausting. The next days, I decided to just stick to one session, even if one or two of the talks were of no greater interest to me.
Overall, the sessions themselves were usually interesting; however, some sounded quite exciting on paper, but turned out to be really boring during the talks. This proves yet another example that it is difficult to reach the audience even with decent data, if you lack the proper presentation skills. Some lecturers would actually talk about how they encountered elevated alpha synuclein levels in post mortem midbrain tissues of PD patients, which honestly left me with a “no shit Sherlock?!” feeling.
One might think that the recent developments in the AD field would spark fruitful and creative discussions; however, the long since established “big-shots” proved to be unreachable and quite aggressive, every time anyone even dared to question their beliefs.
During some talks, it certainly felt like research had made almost no progress during the last ten years. Fortunately, this was different during the poster sessions, but more on that later.

Having listed the worst examples first, I have to counter that most of the talks were of high quality and very interesting. Two examples of these high quality talks would include those regarding the importance of mitochondria for brain homeostasis in PD by Vanessa Morais and one by Giorgio Vivacqua describing alpha synuclein levels in saliva as a potential early biomarker for PD. If I had to pick out a favourite, I have to admit, I really liked the story about human microglia that were inserted into mouse embryos and replaced the murine ones.
Still, the poster sessions were, at least for me, much more interesting than the talks; here, I could get a real impression of the different, well, let's call them “war-zones”. Here, I got the feeling that progress is really being made. Although I was really baffled as to how many posters were left abandoned by their presenters, the present ones were really easy to engage with and were quite happy to discuss science, even at later hours during dinner time. During my own poster presentation, I was able to talk to many different scientists from various countries. All of them were very supportive, friendly and helpful. Sometimes, they asked very critical (but never nasty) questions - which now helps me to better prepare for the hopefully soon submission of my manuscript.
I noticed a remarkable number of different companies presenting their services in the poster hall but I didn't really visit their booths. I primarily wanted to get to know other scientists and their work, not to buy antibodies. So, I could’t really tell you much about their usefulness. What I could go on about, though, is the food! I had heard that two years ago the food left so much to be desired that it was a major conversation point. This year, however, we were able to enjoy a lot of tasty food throughout the day with fine bakery and cakes during the coffee breaks and warm meals like lasagna or stripped meat.

So what is the final verdict, especially considering the relatively high student registration fee of 360€? The schedule was very tight and next time, I would like to maybe see fewer talks and spend more time at the posters. Especially, when I had to present my own poster, I had no break at all and had to skip the afternoon talks. Overall, I think the money was well spent and I enjoyed my time at the conference since I met a lot of new people who were just as passionate about science as I am.
My most memorable moment of the trip, however, was not at the conference itself, but at the last dinner, in the city, after the conference. A waiter asked me and a colleague, what we were doing in Lisbon. We told him about the conference and that we came to present our data and listen to and read the data of other people. Afterwards, he thanked us for the efforts we put into research because we were actually trying to make the world a better place.

His grandmother was suffering from AD, he told us, and even if our research would end up going nowhere, we would still have tried and that in itself was already commendable.

His words changed a little bit how I now look at science again. I think, when I started doing science, I thought similarly, but somehow lost it somewhere between long hours in the lab and data analyses, despite my still young career.

We shouldn't do science for the sake of science, or pride, or money, or the next publication, we should do it for the people.

Marius Baeken is a Postdoc at the Institute of Pathobiochemistry, Behl Lab.

Written by Marius Baeken; Edited by Fazi Bekbulat. Featured Image: NGC/Design.

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