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IBANGS at 25, some personal reminiscences

Twenty five. TWENTY FIVE! I find it hard to believe, because it seems like only yesterday that we founded this new society. But if I then think about how much has happened in the intervening time, the truth hits home: our baby not just walks and talks, but runs and is way past adolescence, well into adulthood!

The birth of this new society had a rather long gestation time. I think it was somewhere in 1994 that Hans-Peter Lipp, during a visit to our institute in Paris, remarked that we needed a European society to represent our field in the European neuroscience federation that was being discussed about. The new society would be named “European Behavioural and Neural Genetics Society”. As so often with good ideas, nothing much happened for a while as other, more urgent, preoccupations demanded our attention. But then, in the early summer of 1996, the formation of a European neuroscience federation was gaining momentum. At a reception of the Fyssen Foundation, I bumped into Wolf Singer, then President of the European Neuroscience Association (ENA) and learned that at the forthcoming ENA/EBBS meeting in Strasbourg a gathering of European societies (both national and specialist ones) would be organized to discuss the particulars of the planned new federation. Boldly I told him that we had just founded this exciting new society and would like to be part of the initiative to create a federation of  European neuroscience societies. I carefully avoided mentioning the number of members (2) and hope this falls in the category of “little white lies” or, even better, an optimistic exaggeration. Singer told me to write a letter so that our new society could be invited to the meeting. Time was short, so we had to get moving.

I tried to contact Hans-Peter to tell him about this, but he was at his research station in Russia and could not be reached. But as soon as he came back, we contacted some colleagues and formed a provisional executive committee. Next, I wrote a letter to the ENA (see image) and announced the formation of the new society and our commitment to the European neuroscience initiative. Again, I carefully avoided mentioning how many members we had (by then we had tripled in size to 5 or 6), only listing some countries where our friends were located. The letter is dated July 15, 1996, which, I think, can be regarded as the birth date of EBANGS. From there, things went fast. Hans-Peter set up a website (something many existing societies did not yet have at that time) and we started recruiting members. As we had no expenses for the moment (the website was hosted on Hans-Peter’s institutional server), we did not charge a membership fee (and at the same time saved ourselves a lot of work) and membership boomed. As hoped for, we received an invitation for EBANGS to participate in the meeting in Strasbourg, where I was present representing the newly founded society.

First official letter from EBANGS to ENA, dated July 15, 1996

Shortly thereafter, the Behavioral Neurogenetics Initiative, a small group of mainly French and US researchers financed by the French Embassy in Washington, organized a summer school and a symposium in Orleans, where our Paris institute had moved to in early 1997. We decided that, with together more than 100 participants already present for these events, this was a great opportunity to organize the first meeting of the fledgling society. About 50 people did indeed stay on for the first EBANGS meeting.

At the business meeting, the provisional executive committee was formalized. In addition, several US colleagues were present who remarked that they’d like to join this new society, given that it was the only one explicitly combining behavioral and neural genetics. Of course, the more the merrier and nobody objected to non-Europeans joining EBANGS. If my memory is to be trusted, it was the late F. Robert Brush who suggested to change the society’s name from “European” to “International”. Bob proposed to maintain the British spelling of the name, as a reminder of our European roots. This proposal was accepted and IBANGS was born. The new name raised some worries from the side of our European sister societies. At the meeting in Berlin in 1998 where the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies was founded, the issue of us not being purely European anymore was raised. However, I assured our colleagues that IBANGS was firmly committed to FENS and half an hour later I signed the founding document of FENS on behalf of IBANGS. More than 20 years later, IBANGS is still a member of FENS, helping to determine the course of European neuroscience.

FENS Council, minutes after the founding document was signed. Representing IBANGS, I stand second from left.

Also at that Berlin meeting, I had several discussions with publishers that were interested in starting a new journal for IBANGS, which after almost two years of negotiations resulted in the creation of Genes, Brain and Behavior, published by the Danish publisher Munksgaard, a full daughter of Blackwell (now Wiley-Blackwell). Baby IBANGS was coming of age!

By now, 25 years later, we can look back on a series of wonderful annual meetings, a strong, dedicated membership, and an illustrious list of Distinguished Investigator and Early Career awardees. Since the founding, numerous people have contributed to the success of the society in leadership positions, from presidents to committee members. We are indebted to them for their dedication. For many years now, thanks to the hard work of John Crabbe and Mark Rutledge-Gorman, the society has received funding from NIH, enabling us to award travel grants to students, postdocs, and early career faculty to attend our meetings. IBANGS has become a mature, vibrant society serving an active community and I for one can’t wait to see what more the future will bring us!

Note: edited Nov 11, 2020 to clarify sequence of events after checking my archive, streamlined, and added a photo.

The science in fiction: From gravity to microbiota

When talking about the science in science fiction, we often concentrate on technology or cultural developments that were correctly predicted in a novel. Of course, we all know that science fiction is not written to come up with correct predictions about the future, but comparing older novels with current developments is fun, nonetheless. At least as much fun is the opposite: where did novels get it completely wrong and why. One of the earliest examples is of course Jules Verne‘s De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon; 1865) in which three explorers are sent on a voyage to the moon aboard a “spaceship” that basically is a huge hollow bullet, fired from a gigantic cannon. Apart from the possibility (or, rather, impossibility) of such a launch mechanism, the novel contains a big mistake that nowadays even a kid in high school will immediately spot: the travelers are subjected to gravity all the way to the point where the gravitational fields of Earth and Moon cancel each other out and then experience a short period of weightlessness. After this their capsule turns around and they are henceforth subjected to the gravity of the moon. However, while the physics of the late 19th century certainly would have been able to predict accurately the weightlessness that the travelers would have experienced throughout the trip (apart from a brief moment at launch), it is easy to see how Verne could have made this mistake. Even much later, in the 1960s, even educated writers got much wrong about acceleration and the effects of its presence or absence. Hugh Walters (and not just him, either) had his astronauts lose consciousness at every launch because of the g-forces they were subjected to, for example.

Another mistake that probably only few people have noticed (mainly because the book is much less popular than Verne’s) is Robert A. Heinlein‘s Sixth Column (1941). It’s far from Heinlein’s best, but, then, even Heinlein’s weaker books are always worth a read. It was published almost a year before Pearl Harbor and portrays a future in which Japan and China are unified under a common emperor as “Pan Asia” and on a conquering spree. After annexing India, they take on the United States and after an apparently rather brief war occupy the country. The story follows a group of researchers hidden in a secret base in the Rocky Mountains who, just at the moment of surrender, discover a new powerful weapon. It is based on a kind of hitherto unknown radiation (not from the common electromagnetic spectrum, but from spectra resulting from different combinations of electrical, magnetic, and/or gravitational forces). These new types of radiations can have several effects, ranging from inducing severe fear to killing specifically some groups of organisms, while leaving others unharmed. Indeed, the researchers get on the trail of this weapon at the start of the novel when a mishap kills almost all people in the base, but not their laboratory mice and rats.

Later on as the story unfolds, one of the scientists realizes that the weapon can also be used for good, namely to cure infectious diseases. To put this to the test, he infects himself with anthrax and then heals himself by using the appropriate radiation to kill the anthrax bacteria. In fact, he also notices that a heavy head cold also disappears and realizes that by killing all microorganisms in his body, he has significantly improved his overall health. When I read this in the middle 70s or so, I already knew that this was incorrect: killing all his gut bacteria would at least have caused some digestive problems for this brave self-experimenting researcher… By now, of course, we know that such a treatment would have much more profound effects.

Recent research has revealed that the composition of our microbiota can influence almost anything you can think of. Having the right gut microorganisms may provide children with a more adaptive response to malnutrition (see also here). And your gut microflora may influence your susceptibility to psychiatric disorders such as depression. Of course, there is no way that Heinlein could have foreseen any of this, as microbiology was just in its infancy at that time: the first antibiotic, penicillin, had been discovered only a decade earlier and did not come into general use until more than a year after Sixth Column was published.

The discovery that our gut bacteria influence our brain and affect things like mood and such was probably a surprise for many people, even neuroscientists who have rightly described this finding as a paradigm shift. In retrospect, as with so many things, it’s much less surprising of course. We habitually try to influence our psychological state by using chemicals, be they recreational drugs or psychopharmaca like antidepressants. That different gut microorganisms, by producing different chemicals (or different quantities of the same chemicals) eventually entering our bloodstream, influence our psychological state is therefore perhaps unexpected, but not really too surprising. Perhaps also unsurprisingly, this has made the view that our behavior is molded by our genes in interaction with environmental influences even more simplistic than it already was. After epigenetics, now our microflora adds additional complexity. And just like genotype and environment complicate things by displaying complex interactions and covariations, it is to be expected that effects of our microbiota will depend on our genes and our environment (and any combination thereof), making things even more complicated. It really makes one wonder, given the current state of our knowledge, about the chances for success for the hugely expensive Human Brain Project.

Given the state of science in 1941, we should probably also credit Heinlein with some insights that were ahead of his time. In the same staff meeting where the above-mentioned scientist confesses to having infected himself with anthrax, the commander next directs the discussion to how best to use their discoveries for propaganda. The head scientist leaves the meeting disgustedly: he’s only interested in science, clearly implying that social science is not real science. In response, the commander reflects on why mass psychology, and psychology in general, would not be a valid field of scientific inquiry. One of the biologists knows the answer to that one: psychology is not a science, because it is too difficult. In a time when experimental psychology was still in its infancy, that’s quite a remarkable insight. In fact, given the above remarks about genes, microbiota, interactions, and what not, things are quite more complex than even Heinlein could have thought. Despite all the advances that we have made since the 1940s and the concomitant improvements in, for example, mental health, we are not at risk to be out of a job anytime soon, as we are still far from understanding how our brains work.

As I have said before: good science fiction makes you think