ESI News


Looking back on ESISyNC 2020

ESISyNC is the highlight of the academic year at the ESI, which everyone at the ESI is looking forward to long in advance. During the small, intensive conference, researchers at ESI have the privilege to invite leading neuro-scientists to the institute. For three days, everything revolves around discussing and gathering inspiration. A great opportunity to frame one’s own research into the bigger picture. Cancel the event because of Covid-19? That was out of the question for the organization team. Instead, the postdocs, PhD students and technical assistants in charge starterd from scratch, called off the catering and purchased an online conference tool - ESISyNC, the online edition.

27 Aug 2020


ESISyNC organizers are having fun despite Covid-19. Image credit: Athansia Tzanou

ESISyNC organizers are having fun despite Covid-19. Image credit: Athansia Tzanou

Frederike, Ben and Rasmus, you were part of the organizing team. Initially you had prepared for a “regular” on-site conference. How was it to suddenly reschedule and plan an online-event?

Frederike Klein: It took a lot of creativity, I would say. And a lot of work. The conference is organized every year by different scientific and technical staff members. To avoid that everybody makes the same mistakes, there is a kind of manual that is always supplemented and passed on to the next generation. But for us of course that didn’t help at all. An online conference needs completely different ingredients. So we had to cancel the hotel rooms we had already booked for the speakers, cancel the catering and also say goodbye to some of the really nice ideas we already had come up with to make “our” ESISyNC a special event. Instead, we had to think a lot about stuff like what the right software is, how to make a time-schedule that works for someone in Japan but as well for someone on the west coast of the US, what to consider in terms of data protection, and how to make sure that it will still be the social and interactive event we were all looking forward to.

You are not the only ones who decided to go virtual. Instead of cancelling all together many scientific conferences this year were rescheduled to online events. Had you joined a virtual conference before and did that experience help with organizing ESISyNC?

Benjamin Stauch: Oh yes, absolutely! Starting from what conference software to use to the best way to run a poster session, we all got this from other virtual meetings. In some cases organizers of previous conferences had put their experience online, which was extremely helpful for us. Also we were lucky in that some of us had helped to organize an online lecture series, the “Mainhatten Lectures” and through this they already knew a lot about virtual talk dos and don’ts. I think if ESISyNC had taken place in March right after the lockdown, we all would have shied away from organizing it as an online conference. But after seeing: Okay, it actually does work, it was a lot less scary to jump into the cold water.

Frederike Klein: I think it also helped that most of our speakers already had given virtual talks before. We only had two speakers who asked to test the procedure beforehand. All the others found online presentations somewhat of a routine thing to do.

Yesterday was the last conference day. Everything worked out just fine. What was the absolute highlight for you that made all the work worthwhile?

Rasmus Roese: To be honest, just in itself that everything worked out so nicely is a huge highlight. I mean, none of us had ever done things like for example an online moderation before. But everything went super smooth and without major glitches. Another thing I liked a lot was the contact with the speakers. It was so friendly and personal, it couldn’t have been any better with coffee and face-to-face conversation. And by going online, ESISyNC got a completely different reach. Almost 200 people were registered. That’s double of what we had last year. Probably there would have been even more registrants if we hadn’t put up a deadline. Of course, not everyone was always present at every talk, the record was around 110 people. But still, our conference room at ESI would not have been large enough for this many people.

Frederike Klein: Yes, that was really a very nice aspect. We had many registrations from students who wouldn’t have been able to attend the conference on-site, simply because there is no way they would get their travel expenses covered. For our online-ESISyNC we had registrants from the Arab world and from Africa. Looking at it like that, it really seems virtual conferences help to disseminate knowledge more equally.

Benjamin Stauch: I agree that this is one of the great advantages of moving conferences online. I noticed before and I did noticed again now at ESISyNC: Students and PhD students are more likely to ask a question during online lectures than when they are in a room full of established researchers and have to speak into a microphone. Personally I also felt that the discussions at the posters were much more active. At physical conferences, I have often waited forever until someone comes to ask about my poster; online this somehow works better. And then we shouldn’t forget, that from an ecological point of view, it is so much better if we don’t travel around the world for a few days of conference.

Next year it’s somebody else’s turn to organize ESISyNC. What advice will you give those colleagues? Assuming the Covid-19 situation is more relaxed by then: online or on site?

Rasmus Roese: A mixture of both would be brilliant. The personal interaction, the little talks during breaks, the networking – all of these things are a lot harder to do online than face to face. Especially small conferences like ESISyNC live from direct contact, and we want to have that back again. But maybe not everyone has to be on site. Maybe speakers who want to avoid flying around the globe or students who can’t afford to come could tune in virtually.
Frederike Klein: Personally, I prefer on-site conferences, but of course it would be great to combine the advantages of online and offline. However, the organization of this online edition of ESISyNC alone has given me grey hair. So, I think one of either - virtual or physical - is already more than enough to do.

Measuring the brain

Maps of the brain are an important tool to understand how the brain works. Unless the map is wrong. In a recent study ESI group leader Martha Nari Havenith and colleagues show that a lot of the research looking at emotional and cognitive processing in rodents relies on a mapping system that doesn’t make sense.

30 Jun 2020


Just like geographers have created maps detailing every corner of the earth, neuroscientists are creating maps that chart different properties of the brain. (Image credit: ESI; composed based on Wytfliet's map of the world courtesy of University of Texas at Austin and Jon Philips / iconspng.com)

Just like geographers have created maps detailing every corner of the earth, neuroscientists are creating maps that chart different properties of the brain. (Image credit: ESI; composed based on Wytfliet's map of the world courtesy of University of Texas at Austin and Jon Philips / iconspng.com)

When Christopher Columbus made landfall in San Salvador in 1492, he was convinced he had reached Asian shores. If he, like Amerigo Vespucci some years later, had attempted to draw a map of the coastal line, he would have noticed his mistake. “Maps are powerful tools that can help us to make sense of the world while we draw them,” says Martha Nari Havenith, who is one of ESI’s group leaders. In a recent publication she and her team demonstrate that many researchers working with mice stick to a brain map that – figuratively speaking – makes them believe they are in Asia, while truly they stepped ground in the Americas.

Just like geographers have created maps detailing every corner of the earth, neuroscientists are creating maps that chart different properties of the brain. This way they are trying to work out the boundaries between brain areas that fulfill different tasks. However, compared to how much we know about earth, we are only just starting to understand the brain, which is why modern day neuroscientists every now and then may be facing problems similar to those the explorers of the new world had: Their maps sometimes reflect what is commonly accepted to be, rather than what really is. Martha Nari Havenith and colleagues found this to be particularly true for certain areas of mouse and rat brains.

Different findings

“I would never have noticed, if my PhD student Sabrina hadn’t been so diligent in comparing her findings to the literature,” remembers Martha Nari Havenith. Sabrina van Heukelum had investigated the function of a brain area called anterior cingulate cortex, or short ACC. ACC plays an important role in making sure we behave appropriately to a situation at hand, by processing emotional information and keeping impulsive behavior in check. In experiments with mice, Sabrina van Heukelum was digging into the mechanism through which ACC controls aggressive behavior. What she observed was that based on anatomical characteristics ACC could be divided in two spatially separate sub-areas: Comparing aggressive mice with less aggressive mice, one of the two areas was increased in volume, while the other was decreased.

A clear-cut finding and one that fits what is known from humans and monkeys. There, based on detailed mapping of neuronal function, a big part of ACC has been defined as a separate area, called midcingulate cortex, or MCC. While ACC is an expert for processing emotions, MCC has a stronger affinity for solving cognitive tasks. For mice however a similar division of labor in cingulate cortex is not well established, explains Martha Nari Havenith: “Initially we thought the research looking at cingulate cortex in mice is still in its infancy and that would explain why the effect we found isn’t as clear for rodents.” But then Sabrina van Heukelum started to dig deeper. She compared her own data with what was reported in the literature and realized: Many studies would probably have been able to describe the same effect she had found, if they had used the same brain map.

Different maps

The maps that are most commonly used in order to navigate through brains of rats and mice do not partition cingulate cortex on the grounds of a functional division into ACC and MCC as it is common for most species (including humans). They use a historic partitioning that divides cingulate cortex in two areas called Cg1 and Cg2 that are located perpendicular to where the ACC/MCC border would be. “When we used the Cg1/Cg2 convention for our own data, the result just looked like noise,” explains Sabrina van Heukelum. The influence of cingulate cortex in controlling aggressive behavior did not get apparent because the differences in volume were thrown together and zeroed each other out.

Divisions of cingulate cortex compared. Abbreviations: ACC, anterior cingulate cortex; Cg1, cingulate area 1; Cg2, cingulate area 2; IL, infralimbic cortex; MCC, midcingulate cortex; PL, prelimibic cortex. (Image credit: Sabrina van Heukelum, Trend in Neuroscience, Mai 2020)

Divisions of cingulate cortex compared. Abbreviations: ACC, anterior cingulate cortex; Cg1, cingulate area 1; Cg2, cingulate area 2; IL, infralimbic cortex; MCC, midcingulate cortex; PL, prelimibic cortex. (Image credit: Sabrina van Heukelum, Trend in Neuroscience, Mai 2020)

Other researchers have previously pointed out that it would make more sense to agree on a functionally defined cross-species definition of brain areas and drop historic definitions for individual species. The work by Martha Nari Havenith and her group is the first to illustrate how dramatically this may impact scientific insight. “When it comes down to it, neuroscientists are not researching rodents to better understand mice. We want to understand the brain across species,” concludes the ESI researcher. The scientists hope their finding will bring other researchers to stop using the established but outdated rodent charting system so they have better chances to realize when they are in neuronal Asia and when they discovered America.

Original publication: van Heukeum, S., Mars, R.B., Guthgrie, M., Buitelaar, J.K., Beckmann, C.F., Tiesinga, P.H.E., Vogt, B.A., Glennon, J.C., Havenith, M.N. (2020). Where is cingulate cortex? A cross-species view. TINS 43(5), P285-299. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2020.03.007

COVID-19 precautions at ESI

In the context of the current Coronavirus-Pandemic, everybody is requested to act responsibly in order to protect themselves and others, and the medical system from collapsing. The ESI takes this responsibility very seriously and adopts safety measures. As a consequence visits to the ESI are restricted.

18 Mar 2020


We want to ensure that the Institute remains a safe working space. Therefore we practice social distancing wherever possible. As a part of this, we try to reduce the amount of people coming in and out of the building:

  • Public lectures are canceled until further notice.
  • If possible, please postpone any visits to the ESI.
  • If you have to visit the ESI, please get in touch with your local contact person via e-mail or telephone well in advance.
  • If you are admitted to the building, please use the disinfectant dispenser at the entrance.
  • Do not shake hands!
  • Keep your distance!
Atemschutzmaske © Thomas Wunderle