Federation of European Neuropsychology Societies 2019: Conference Report

In my final conference of a busy summer I attended the Federation of European Neuropsychology Societies (FESN) which took place from 5th -7th September in Milan. I arrived on the 4th and stayed in the conference hotel “Palazzo Delle Stellene” which was a converted monastery right beside the church that houses Michelangelo’s Last Supper. The hotel was very atmospheric, although the plumbing was a bit noisy and there was a long queue for the single coffee machine at breakfast! The talks on the first day didn’t start until lunchtime, so after breakfast I strolled down to the Piazza del Duomo to take the obligatory selfie at both ends of the square for use in lectures on neglect 😉 .

Looking across the Piazza Del Duomo from the steps of the Duomo

The conference itself was hosted in the Universita Cattolica del Sacro Coure, which is  housed in the cloisters of the beautiful old monastery of Sant’Ambrogio. The main auditorium (Aula Magna) was richly decorated, as was the Crypt, which held some of the other sessions. This grandeur did come at a cost, as the rooms tended to be long and narrow which wasn’t brilliant for their acoustics and meant it could be hard to read detail on some slides. The opening address was an interesting and unusually political appeal to science administrators and governments to protect researchers doing animal work. It was followed by a keynote from Emrah Duzel explaining the functional anatomy of episodic memory loss in Alzhiemers disease, then lunch in the grounds. After lunch I attended the ‘Body in the Brain’ symposium, which discussed recent developments in the understanding of embodiment and then an excellent session on networks of attentional control chaired by Alfredo Spanga. My main take homes from this session were that the old idea that the right hemisphere is specialised for spatial attention has really stood the test of time, but also that people in this field really neglect the role of the oculomotor system in visuospatial attention.  

Looking along the cloisters

Speaking of attention and eye-movements, my talk was on ‘Associations and dissociations between oculomotor readiness and covert attention and was part of a Colloquium organised by Thomas Schenk. As the talks was only 15 mins I covered our the studies on attention within and beyond the range of eye movements we recently published in Cortex (Casteau & Smith 2018) and only touched on the broader literature, which we reviewed in Casteau & Smith (2019). I was more nervy than usual about this talk, partly because it was in Italy, which I think of as the home of Premotor theory, and partly because I knew several of my old bosses (Thomas and Steve Jackson) would be there and I wanted to put on a good show. Unfortunately I was last in the evening session so attendance was a wee bit sparse, but in the end I think it went quite well, and I got some good questions from Steve and Janet Bultitude afterwards. The other speakers were Ana Chica, who gave a very nice talk on the motoric and perceptual effects of Inhibition of Return, Christian Poth who demonstrated that there is some trans-saccadic competition between unattended objects and Karin Ludwig, who reported experiments showing that visual scanning training can bias attention in healthy participants. In the following days I attended some fascinating talks on Neglect in the symposium organed by Monika Harvey and saw a superb keynote from Carlo Miniussi on the challenges of applying neurostimulation techniques such as tDCS to neurorehabilitation. Masud Husain also gave an excellent talk on apathy, showing that in many cases the core problem is that patients are not motivated by outcomes with high rewards. I also attended the poster sessions, but as these were only an hour long and over lunch I didn’t see as many as I would have liked. There was some excellent work, and I particularly enjoyed Monika Halika’s poster “Disputing neglect-like symptoms in unilateral chronic pain” which showed there is no unilateral attentional bias in chronic pain patients with upper limb pain using a TOJ task. 

I had not been to FESN before and I thought there were some interesting comparisons between it and ECEM, which Soazig & I had attended earlier in the summer (you can read a report here). The

The Aula Magna, viewed from the stage. There were a few more people by the time my talk started!

meetings felt of a similar size, with around 400-500 delegates and this gave them both a feeling of intimacy and offered excellent opportunities for catching up with friends and colleagues and meeting new people. If anything FESN offered me more opportunities for networking’ (as opposed to gossiping with old friends). A nice example of this was probably the couple of hours I spent in the company of Thomas and Sergio Della Salla, listening to them discuss the state of academic publishing. It was interesting to hear a perspective from ‘inside’ the industry (Thomas is former section editor for Neuropsychologia and Sergio the EiC of Cortex). It was also a salutatory lesson in the power of personal contact; for some time I’ve harboured an ambition to edit a special issue but not really known how to go about it. I tentatively mentioned this to Sergio, only to have him beckon seductively while crooning ‘send it to me’. So, watch this space!  The conference registration fee was quite high at 400 euro for early, non-members, but as with ECEM this included excellent plentiful lunches and a welcome reception. Although the meeting was intimate it felt a bit more formal than ECEM, with many delegates adopting a ‘smart causal’ look or even suits, despite the warm weather. The talks themselves also tended to have a more sober delivery, perhaps as Christian Poth suggested, because many of the delegates were also clinicians and were discussing research related to their own patients.

Overall I thought it was an excellent meeting with a very high standard of talk. The highlight was probably Miniussi’s talk on tDCS, although I was also very tickled when Radek Ptak approached Thomas and I saying “Hey! You’re the Premotor Theory guys!”. I would definitely consider attending FESN again and it would be an excellent forum to present the results from our more applied neuropsychological work on Attention & Memory in Progressive Supranuclear Palsy and Parkinson’s Disease (e.g. Smith & Archibald 2019) .

Casteau, S. & Smith, D.T. (2019). Associations and Dissociations between Oculomotor Readiness and Covert Attention. Vision 3(2): 17
Casteau, S. & Smith, D.T. (2018). Covert Attention Beyond the Range of Eye-movements: Evidence for a Dissociation between Exogenous and Endogenous orienting. Cortex

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