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FENS 2018 – Berlin

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Berlin. Population of 3.601.131 habitants. A place to be. Or like Peter Fox sang „…(Berlin) du kannst so hässlich sein so dreckig und grau, Du kannst so schön schrecklich sein, deine Nächte fressen mich auf…(Berlin) you can be so ugly, so dirty and gray, you can be so beautifully awful, your nights are eating me alive…“.

I arrive late in the evening and peculiar people await me in front of the hostel entrance under the neon lantern light. I wonder if it really was that smart an idea to take the cheapest hostel close to the convention center. In my room, two Finnish ladies are standing in front of me: Dressed in black, white faces, smoky eyes, pink cemented eyelashes. I think ‘Yeah, you can do that’ [I wouldn’t].
But, who am I? A neurobiologist, a Postdoc for two years now. I’ve done my PhD in Munich, with a topic so cool, that I still get enthusiastic. The moment my former boss asked me if I could imagine myself working on ketamine as a fast antidepressant, I started feeling like Timothy Leary. He was a big guru for the Hippie movement, who created a furor with his studies on LSD.
After my time in Munich, I moved to Mainz. Research on bio- and neuroenergetics attracted me. How does our brain handle and work with the immense energy need it has. And what happens if there is too little available? So, I arrive with these topics in my head and a poster in my bag.

The FENS is taking place in Berlin. At the Forum of Neuroscience. It’s the largest neuroscientific conference in Europe. It’s celebrating its 20th birthday. The very first conference actually also took place in Berlin. In 1998. Eight years after the German reunification.
That year Gerhard Schröder becomes chancellor, Google is founded. I am 15 and in 9th grade. I am far away from my current passion! In 1999, at the age of 16, I will leave school. I am convinced that I want to be a business management assistant. I am smarter at 17 and I know it better. At 19 I am back in school!

Back to the future. Back to today. Or first to the year 2016. That’s when the last FENS took place, in Copenhagen. And I was there, too. I had a poster about ketamine and met a professor from Helsinki. He was young, very open-minded, and very dedicated to his work. He is in Berlin, too, and we will meet one evening to talk about science. The idea: To connect neuropsychiatric and neuroenergetic research. To me, this is also the most fascinating part of these conferences. You build a network – you get to know so many different people. Future bosses or perspective collaborators. You get new ideas through all the posters and talks.
What happens during the conference? There is an opening day. There is a very good talk about digital phenotyping, about a new kind of biomarker. In my opinion, fascinating and scary at the same time. A smartphone app monitors how you use the smartphone: what you read, what you write, and how you use it. It is based on pattern recognition and machine learning and it predicts whether you are about to fall back into a depressive episode.

There is also always something “hip” [note: there is irony in my writing style] on the first day. I don’t really take much pleasure in these things, however, it seems that there are many visitors who are really enjoying these events. This year they have a dance group. Breakdance maybe? And a comedian, or magician, or both together somehow. I love to skip this part – I am yawning [I apologize to all who were really into it].

The next five days are full of poster sessions, plenary lectures, and symposia. I love poster sessions. I guess this is a matter of taste. I love direct discussions with scientists, about their work, and also about mine. I experience the direct contact and exchange as incredibly enriching.

One interesting poster that really stands out to me, is the one of Kerstin Kuffner from Christian Wetzel’s lab. Her research topic is about altered mitochondrial function in fibroblasts and reprogrammed neuronal progenitor cells from depressed patients. Their hypothesis: Based on the brains’ high energetic needs, it is especially vulnerable towards energetic imbalances. And bioenergetics alterations already have been linked to psychiatric disorders including depression, autism, and schizophrenia. Thus, they isolated and cultivated fibroblasts and neuronal progenitor cells obtained from depressed patients and analyzed mitochondrial function. There findings “are in line with the hypothesis that mitochondrial dysfunction in conjunction with a reduced metabolic capacity, altered Ca2+ homeostasis, and lower energy (ATP) provision is involved in the etiology and pathophysiology of depression.”

A wonderfully entertaining talk happens with Frans de Waal: „Prosocial animals: Empathy and cooperation“. Maybe some of you already know his TED-talk youtube Video „two monkeys were paid unequally“. There are two monkeys in cages next to each other where they can also see each other. They both have the same task: to give a stone to a supervisor and get a reward. The first monkey gives the supervisor a stone and gets a cucumber. Up until now, everything is fine, the monkey is happy. Now, the second monkey gives her a stone and gets a grape in return. Monkeys love grapes [If I had to choose between a cucumber and grapes, I would definitely go for grapes, too!]. The first monkey sees the exchange and seems fascinated by it. Now it’s his turn again. He gives the supervisor a stone and still gets a cucumber in return. This time he seems frustrated, or even pissed, and angry. He throws the cucumber out of his cage and at the supervisor [this is the moment, where you hear the first big laughter of the audience]. Then you see how he takes the grid into his hands and shakes it, obviously very angry [this is the moment, where you hear the second big laughter of the audience]. Occupy is understandable, don’t you think?

There is always a conference party. Usually, I am not a big party animal. Therefore, I am mostly only a short visitor. But it seems Berlin is different somehow! I meet the professor from Helsinki, together with his research group at Pizzeria Ali Baba at the beginning of this evening. Besides our conversation about science, we get into funny and amusing clichés about Germans and the Finns. “Why do you still use money in cash?” they ask. This is a very astonishing question, and I probably look really weird at that moment. He further explains that when he arrived in Germany he went to one of those pay toilets and didn’t have cash with him, a predicament. He says that everything is cashless in Finland and we continue our conversation about the country. There are Saunas in every house [I get jealous]. And nearly every Finn has a small cabin in either the woods or at a lakeside [now I get even more jealous]. We continue with science.

After some beers and a cocktail, the topic shifts far away from science to the FENS party, and his PhD student and I decided to give the party a try. I am still thinking ‘one or two hours and one or two beers, then I will leave and go to my hostel’. As we arrive, though, I recognize another familiar face from my time back in Munich, and then another one from Mainz, and again many more from Munich. The atmosphere, the music, and the whole evening are pretty euphoric and we all stay until „die Wolken wieder lila sind” (“until the clouds turn purple again”), to say it with the wonderful words of the singer Marteria, Miss Platum and Yasha!

Written by Katja Weckmann; Edited by Fazi Bekbulat. Featured Image: NGC/Design.

Katja Weckmann is Postdoc at the Institute of Pathobiochemistry, Behl Lab. If you want to know more about her, check out her interview.

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