Frontiers of Brain Science - From Tohoku University to the World

In the summer of 2015, Tohoku University, Japan, organized the 'Frontiers of Brain Science' program. This unique research program was hosted by the Tohoku Forum for Creativity, and consisted of three international symposia and one practical workshop.

"We live in an exciting time for brain science research," said Prof. Noriko Osumi, one of the main organizers of the program. "Through gaining a thorough understanding of the molecular interactions which take place within our brains, we will obtain a key insight into the understanding of our minds, and ultimately of humanity itself."

The aim of the program was to invite world-leading scientists to Tohoku University to discuss their ideas with the university's faculty and students. Three themes were chosen: Tools and Technologies, Development and Disease, and Memory and Mind.

"This program represented an invaluable opportunity for our students and junior researchers to discuss their research and receive feedback from distinguished scientists, including the Nobel Laureate Susumu Tonegawa," said Prof. Osumi.

The first event in the program, 'Tools and Technologies,' was held in July, and consisted of a workshop and symposium. "Recent technological advances have provided significant and unexpected insights into the functioning of the brain," said Dr. Ko Matsui, a co-organizer of this event.

"Cutting-edge technologies such as optogenetics, super-resolution microscopy and connectomics are providing spectacular results that will shape the future direction of brain science research," he added. "In light of this fact, we wanted to hold a symposium in which we could discuss the fascinating data being generated by these techniques, and to discuss how their combined use can offer fresh insight on the functions of the brain."

Prior to the symposium, a four-day practical workshop was held, aimed specifically at students and young researchers. "By inviting companies such as Leica, Nikon, Zeiss and JEOL to demonstrate their latest microscopes and technologies, we gave our graduate students the chance to experience a wide variety of cutting-edge techniques for themselves," said Dr. Matsui. "In addition, by using their own samples, the participants were also able to generate real data for use in their own research."

"The workshop was amazing," said Hiroyuki Igarashi, a PhD candidate at Tohoku University. "This was a very rare chance for us to compare cutting-edge bio-imaging techniques. It was like test driving a Lamborghini, Ferrari and Lexus LFA all in one day!"

"Our students' group organized the social events and the excursion which took place on the last day of the symposium," said group member Soojin Kwon. "During the excursion we adopted the buddy-system and assigned one student for each invited speaker. In this way, we could discuss various topics with the speakers, including the inside story of their studies, and also their hobbies and interests. I now sometimes get short text messages on my smart phone from a world-leading professor!"

The main symposia that followed the workshop were held at the TOKYO ELECTRON House of Creativity. This event featured presentations by distinguished international speakers, and also underscored the fascinating brain science research being carried out at Tohoku University. These include Hiromu Tanimoto's work on 'Mapping circuits for memory formation' and Koichi Hashimoto's research into 'Machine Vision and Robotics in Biology.'

The highlight of the first symposium was the presentation by Jeff Lichtman from Harvard, in which he discussed 'The Promises and Perils of Connectomics,' a study which formed the basis of the cover story of the journal Cell in July 2015.

The second symposium, 'Development and Disease,' was held in August. "The fact that a structure as intricate and complicated as the human brain can develop from the genetic and epigenetic programs encoded in a single fertilized egg never ceases to amaze me," said co-organizer Prof. Yasuyuki Taki.

"Unfortunately, small errors in this seemingly impossible task sometimes occur, and they can have profound consequences which may lead to neurodevelopmental diseases. At the 'Development and Disease' symposium, we discussed in detail how the program of neural development unfolds, with the aim of understanding how errors in these processes can lead to human disease."

Junior researchers at Tohoku University said the event gave them the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of recent breakthroughs in neurodevelopment and neurological diseases. "The presentation by Prof. Paul Matthews was most memorable as he cited many interesting examples, and his presentation was most closely related to my field," said Ying Hwey, an international PhD student studying neuroscience.

The final symposium tackled the subject of 'Memory and Mind.'

"Our ability to form and recall memories is critical for the process through which we define our personal identity. As observed in patients with Alzheimer's disease or amnesia, loss of memory can directly lead to the loss of identity," said Dr. Ken-ichiro Tsutsui, an organizer of the third symposium.

"The aim of this symposium was to carry out an in-depth discussion of the central processes involved in memory formation, in order to shed new light on the human mind."

The plenary lecture at this symposium was given by the Nobel Laureate Susumu Tonegawa on the subject 'Memory Engram Cells have Come of Age,' in which he discussed his most recent research into the mechanism of memory formation.

Overall, the series of three international symposia, together with other related events such as seminars on research ethics led by Prof. Shubha Tole, and on writing high-impact papers by Dr. Charles Yokoyama, were very successful in encouraging the development of young researchers in the field of neuroscience. In addition, almost all of the participants were impressed by the quality and diversity of the neuroscience research at Tohoku University.

Another organizer of the program, Prof. Toshio Iijima, further added, "in November, we held an international symposium on the 'Joy of Brain Research,' which was jointly organized with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Another Nobel Laureate, Prof. Edvard Moser, gave the keynote lecture there."

It's hoped that the success of the Tohoku Forum for Creativity Thematic Program "Frontiers of Brain Science" will provide a spark for the establishment of the new International Collaboration Graduate Program, "NeuroGlobal," starting in 2018.

Liam Baird
Tohoku Forum for Creativity

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For information on Brain Science at Tohoku University:
Tohoku University Brain Science Center

Published: 07 Apr 2016


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