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The Neuroscience and Society Series

About the Series

The Neuroscience and Society series is a partnership between the Dana Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Numerous public events have been held, covering the following topics:

Adolescent Brain
Aging Brain
Infant Development
Science and Policy of Marijuana
Language Acquisition
Sleep and Dreaming
Arts and the Brain
Stress and the Brain
Mental Illness
Taste and Smell
Chronic Pain
Traumatic Brain Injury
Creativity and Genius
Neuroscience and the Law
Truth and Lying
Growing Older and Cognition
Opioid Epidemic
Video Games

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Past Events

Autism [October 4, 2018]
Autism spectrum disorder is believed to affect one in every 110 American children, and the causes of the disorder remain unknown. A number of theories have been debunked, including an old theory that autism was caused by bad mothers, whose chilly behavior toward their child led their youngsters to withdraw into a private world, and the theory that vaccines led to autism. This program presented the latest theories about the causes of autism, both genetic and nongenetic, and also gave an overview of what are currently thought to be the best treatment options for both children and adults.

Buildings and the Brain [March 15, 2018]
Using scientific methodology, architects and neuroscientists are increasingly collaborating to explore the variety of human experiences that can change with the design of buildings. Does it matter to our brains if a building has lots of curves or lots of sharp angles? As we walk the streets of our cities, what are the effects on our brains of façade design, greenspaces, and street geometry? Sophisticated neuroimaging technologies have made it possible to answer questions like these. Finally, the program addressed the special challenges when designing buildings and rooms for individuals suffering from the extreme neurological deficits that are present in dementia, in general, and Alzheimer’s, in particular.

To Tell the Truth! [November 9, 2017]
Truth and lying are complicated neurological behaviors. Although the role of the visual cortex and other areas of the brain are being identified, and their functions clarified, it is not likely that there is a “truth” center in the brain or a “lying” center. Scientists try to identify neurological correlates of truth-telling and lying in the laboratory, but it is not known if any findings of this type are operative in real life.

The Meditating Brain [September 28, 2017]
From contemplation to prayer, forms of meditation exist in every society. Now, using up-to-date technologies, these ancient practices are being increasingly studied by neuroscientists. Although learning to meditate—to turn off all distractions—is no easy task, the advertised benefits claim it to be worthwhile. Such alleged benefits include the “calming” of neurotransmitters, beating addiction, and even building a bigger brain.

The Opioid Epidemic [May 10, 2017]
Opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, with overdoses and deaths caused by prescribed and “street” drugs on the rise. The accelerating abuse of opioids includes not only painkillers that have legitimate uses, but heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl as well. The epidemic is not limited to inner city pockets of poverty; small-town America is also overcome by a tsunami of opioid addiction, putting strains on state and local social services and criminal justice systems. This event addressed the demographics and sociology of the opioid epidemic, the science of opioid addiction, and treatment options.

Ready, Player One: How Video Games Affect Your Brain and Behavior [March 15, 2017]
In 1971, the first commercially sold coin-operated video game opened the gates for the era of gaming as we know it. From those early days of “Computer Space”, video games have grown into a $74 billion dollar market worldwide. The wide appeal of video games has not been without controversy. Like rock’n’roll in the 50s, video games have been the objects of opposition from parent and religious groups, as well as politicians. This event addressed some of the questions raised by the growing consumer demand for more video games. What effects do violent games have on behavior? Is there such a thing as video game “addiction”, and if so, is it curable? How can playing video games actually benefit your brain?

The Anxious Brain: The Neuroscience of Phobias [October 18, 2016]
Phobias are the most common mental disorders in the United States, affecting about 10% of all adults, and many of them can be highly debilitating. They are a type of anxiety disorder, defined by a persistent fear of an object or situation, leaving some people unable to function in ordinary life. You have likely heard of acrophobia (fear of heights), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), and claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces). But have you heard of ephebiphobia (fear of teenagers), mageirocophobia (fear of cooking), or phobophobia (a fear of phobias)? The list goes on. Why do people develop phobias? Are some more susceptible than others? What mechanisms in the brain are in play when phobias strike and what does research reveal about effective treatments? This event discussed why phobias arise, the damage they can do, and how best to treat them.

Closing the Language Skills Gap Among Children: It's Never Too Soon to Start [September 28, 2016]
Many children are at a disadvantage even before they walk into an early Head Start or pre-K program. Research indicates that children from families of low socioeconomic status (SES) have fallen more than six months behind their more advantaged cohorts in language processing and proficiency skills by the time they are two years old. And this deficiency continues to grow. It is apparent that this language gap has profound and lifelong outcomes, not only in “making the grade,” but in self-esteem and behavior. Brain research is helping scientists better understand the neural mechanisms underlying language processing in infants and young children, as well as the social interactions necessary for honing those skills. What do we know and what can be done to mitigate the long-term effects of this deficit? This event addressed the latest research, the emerging “home training for parents,” and the policy issues surrounding this disparity.

Growing Older, Cognition and What Science Has to Offer [June 15, 2016]
If we live long enough, aging is inevitable, and more people in the U.S. are living longer than ever before. Yet, age is a major risk factor for most common neurodegenerative diseases, so its consequences for individuals, families and society are anything but trivial. But how we age is not fixed. There are things we can do to mitigate the harsh effects that aging can have on our brains, on the way we think, understand, learn and remember. This event addressed that question from different perspectives—what science tells us about the aging process and its impact on cognition, what effective, or not so effective, strategies there are for maintaining or enhancing cognition as we age, and what the funding priorities are as reflected in the portfolio of the National Institute on Aging.

The Science and Policy of Marijuana [March 30, 2016]
Science and policy are often in tension with one another. Such is the case with the evolution of marijuana policy over the past several years as implemented by the states. There are those who believe marijuana should stay as it is—a controlled substance strictly regulated by the federal government, which views marijuana as highly addictive and without medical value. There is a subset of Americans who believe it should be readily accessible for medicinal uses, regulated in ways similar to other accepted pharmaceuticals. And there are those who believe that the legalization of “recreational” marijuana is the direction in which the U.S. should move. A scientist who leads the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a physician, and a policy maker from a jurisdiction where recreational marijuana has been legalized addressed what science reveals about the addictiveness of marijuana and its effects on the human brain and behavior, the status and evidence of its medicinal value, and what the implications are for policies that legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal and/or recreational uses.

Creativity, Genius and the Brain [October 27, 2015]
Scientists often cite Isaac Newton when crediting the work of others who have come before them: If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. Who are those “giants”? We know they are not limited to the sciences. Music has them. So does art. As well as literature. Do these giants possess the characteristics of genius and creativity in larger doses than the rest of us? What makes a genius? Why are some people so much more creative than others? How do people “become” creative or a genius? What influence do brain and environment have in developing and nurturing genius or creativity? These and other questions were the focus of this public event. Speakers addressed circumstances necessary to produce a cultural environment that nurtures creativity; the role of epiphanies in the creative thinking process; and how science can contribute to enhanced creativity.

Mental Illness Across the Ages: From Children, to Adolescents, to Middle Aged and the Elderly [September 30, 2015]
Mental illness is a brain disorder that often results in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life. Unlike most disabling physical illnesses, mental illness begins very early in life, with half of all lifetime cases beginning by age 14. It is estimated that mental illness affects 1 in 4 families in America, with an estimated 23% of American adults 18 and older and 20% of American children suffering from a mental disorder during a given year. Advances in neuroscience and related fields have produced evidence-based treatment options, but there remain serious gaps in access by those most in need across all age cohorts. The accumulated burden and hazards of untreated mental illness is a critical public health issue for all Americans. This event focused on what we know about the causes, effects and treatments of mental illness, from young children, to adolescents, to middle-age and elderly patients.

From Birth to Two: Prepping for Life [June 18, 2015]
From birth to two years old is marked by great cognitive, emotional, social and physical development in children, and the brain is growing at a rapid pace. Research has enabled professionals and parents to identify developmental milestones for assessing a child’s progress across time. Although children develop according to a predictable sequence of steps, they do not necessarily proceed through them in the same way or at the same time. Every child’s development is unique, influenced by genetics, prenatal development, the care he/she receives after birth, and the experiences prompted by his or her environment. So there is a wide range of what may be considered 'normal' development. Leading scientists reviewed both basic and clinical research and discussed factors that influence child development from birth to two-years old, helping us understand what to look for, how to interpret what we observe, and what, if anything, can be done to intervene if something goes “wrong.”

Tangled up in Blue: The Complexity of Chronic Pain [March 18, 2015]
Chronic pain constitutes a serious health, social and economic issue worldwide. A 2011 Institute of Medicine Report noted that more than 100 million Americans meet the criteria for a chronic pain diagnosis, which leads to more than 500 billion dollars in direct and indirect medical costs annually. Beyond the numbers, chronic pain is an enormous burden on quality of life for the individual. Moreover, treatment options are often characterized by an incomplete efficacy and/or dose limiting side effects. Neuroscience can contribute to better understanding the mechanisms that turn acute pain into chronic pain, assessing the long-term impact that chronic pain has on the brain, and the benefits and risks of various treatment options. This event reported on recent findings from neuroscience and medicine that are influencing views on pain management and helping guide decisions on treatments, better approaches to educating health professionals, and in policymaking.

Now You See it, Now You Don't. Is Anything Really as it Seems? The Science of Illusion [October 28, 2014]
Do you believe what you see? Do you trust your senses? These are just some of the questions posed by illusion, where confusion and clarity often merge and where what we perceive can be hugely different from physical reality. Since the brain is responsible for interpreting what our senses are telling us, as well as what we dream and what we remember or forget, the real and imagined share the same neural system. So when we experience an illusion, we may sense something that is not present or fail to see something that is. By studying this disconnect between perception and reality, scientists can learn about brain function and its relevance to mental health, decision making and the way we view ourselves and others. The event included a performance by Alain Nu, an illusionist, about whom the Washington Post wrote, will leave “audiences asking, ‘How’d he do that?’ Following the performance, psychiatrist and author Richard Restak, and Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, scientists who study various aspects of visual, sensory and cognitive neuroscience, discussed the science underlying what the audience had just experienced. 

Stressing About Stress--What Our Minds and Bodies are Going Through and Ways to Cope [September 18, 2014]                              
Feeling a bit stressed? If so, you’re not alone. Stress is very much a part of being human; even animals experience stress. A little stress can be a good thing, but how can you tell the good from the bad, and too little from too much?  At this event, two scientists helped us better understand what our mind and body experience—good and bad—when we encounter stressful situations. They also discussed various “cures,” “treatments,” and coping mechanisms for dealing with stress, the extent to which they have been subjected to rigorous scientific research and which ones stand out among the others.

Smells Delicious and Good to Eat: How Your Brain Distinguishes Tastes and Aromas [May 6, 2014]
We all like to eat, especially our favorite dishes. And we all like pleasant aromas, such as freshly picked flowers. Why is it that some foods taste better than others, and why do different people like or dislike different foods? How does it happen that certain aromas appeal to us, while others make us hold our noses? And how do taste and aroma interact with each other? Neuroscientists are leading the way in finding answers to those questions, and others are using knowledge gained from science to satisfy the human palate and sense of smell. Speakers included a neuroscientist from the Monell Institute, and experts in wine, food, and fragrance. Participants learned how sommeliers choose and evaluate wines, how chefs create menus, and how perfumers and others create fragrances that are appealing. Following the program, participants enjoyed a special tasting reception and an interactive demonstration with perfumes.

Wake up, I'm Speaking: The Neuroscience of Sleep and Dreaming [March 11, 2014]
It seems that everybody, from comedians, to poets, to world leaders, have something to say about sleep. So why not scientists? Sleep, or the lack of it, is the focus of considerable research in the United States, where sleep disorders and sleep deprivation have been associated with poor cognitive performance, behavioral problems, accidents, ill health and other factors that adversely affect quality of life. When we do sleep, we also dream; in fact, during a typical lifetime, people spend an average of six years dreaming. In the past, dreams have been interpreted as omens of the future, representations of reality, and even divine messages from the gods. Nowadays, we tend to have slightly more rational views about dreams, but their significance and meaning remain a subject of debate in both science and public discourse. Speakers addressed what neuroscience research tells us about sleep, sleep disorders, the mechanisms and functions of dreaming, and the impact of sleep research on medicine and society.

The Arts and the Brain: What Does Your Brain See? What Does Your Brain Hear? [October 24, 2013]
When you listen to music or look at a painting, your brain is busy. Recent advances in neuroimaging allow a more sophisticated understanding of the brain processes underlying sound and vision. Speakers addressed the neurobiology of how we respond to music, and how the brain processes form, symmetry, color and stereoscopic depth perception. Attendees also had an opportunity to visit a special exhibit in the AAAS art gallery and to listen to a musical performance during the reception.

Neuroenhancement: Building an Improved Human Body and Mind [September 19, 2013]
Human enhancement is the notion that science and technology can be used to restore or expand cognitive and physical human capacities. It has received considerable public attention in recent years with the return of injured soldiers and the demand for prosthetic devices and with controversies surrounding the use of performance enhancing drugs in sports. This program focused on a diverse set of enhancements for mind and body, examining the science of what can be done, what might be done in the near and far future, and what should be done. The remarkable opportunities created by scientific advancements are accompanied by ethical and policy challenges that demand a broader public conversation.

What Are They Thinking? Exploring the Adolescent Brain [June 12, 2013]
Advances in neuroscience have enabled researchers to learn more about how the adolescent brain functions, from the everyday behavior of teenagers to how they cope with the challenges of disease, learning problems, and social cues. Speakers at this event addressed the development of the adolescent brain, the diseases and learning difficulties that seem to correlate with adolescence, and the policy initiatives undertaken by the federal government in response.

Neuroscience and the Law [April 25, 2013]
Research on the brain has shed new light on the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. These advances have not been lost on the legal system, where they raise serious issues for the law, from matters relating to the admissibility of evidence to decisions about criminal culpability. Speakers at this event addressed what neuroscience can and cannot tell us about human behavior; the ways in which neuroscience is entering the courtroom; and the challenges this emerging knowledge poses for the trier of fact.

The Science and Impact of Traumatic Brain Injury [October 23, 2012]
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) has been the recent focus of many in the neuroscience research community, professional sports world and the military. Speakers at this event discussed the current state of neuroscience research on TBI in the context of sport and combat; the areas of research that seem most promising for preventing and treating TBI; and a personal account of the effects of TBI on U.S. soldiers.

The Aging Brain: What’s New in Brain Research, Treatment and Policy? [June 23, 2012]
As scientists continue to make advances in neuroscience, they are learning more about how the aging brain functions in health and disease.  Speakers at this event discussed what we know at the basic research level; what we still need to determine; how we can apply scientific findings to the clinical setting; and how we must develop humane and effective policies nationwide as our population ages. The progress of this research will touch all of us as we age, become caretakers for family members and; friends, and remain engaged citizens in helping to determine local and national policy.

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