I often refer to myself as a ‘hybrid of ology’s’. My undergraduate degree is in Biology and I have a masters in Medical Sciences… Yet I’m here, writing for the PsyPAG blog as I approach the final year of my PhD in Psychology. My particular field of research is Nutritional Neuropsychology; specifically looking at the effect of female iron status and nutritional supplementation on a bunch of cognitive and mood outcomes, combining both biology and psychology in sweet harmony. When I go to ‘broad’ psychology conferences, as interesting as I find them, I can often find myself a little lost and, to be blunt, not really knowing what’s going on. However, the Annual Psychobiology Section Conference is a whole different kettle of fish.
I have been the PsyPAG Psychobiology Section Rep for the past year and have been lucky enough to attend the conference twice. Each year, it is held at the Low Wood Bay Hotel which overlooks the grand Lake Windermere in the Lake District (doesn’t that already sell the conference to you?!). If you’re lucky enough to stay, you may be even luckier to get a lake view room to enjoy in your fluffy hotel dressing gown whilst nibbling on some famous Grasmere gingerbread kindly left in the room for you. The tag line of the conference itself is ‘where the science is as good as the view’, so did it live up to its reputation this year?
Figure 1: The beautiful location of the Psychobiology Annual Scientific Meeting. Low Wood Bay Hotel, Lake Windermere.
Dissimilar to conferences like PsyPAG where multiple symposia are occurring at the same time, everyone attends the same talks at the same time at the section conference. The conference kicked off on Wednesday afternoon with ‘Food and Drinks’ talks assessing the impact of a low glycaemic diet, glucose regulation, and polyphenol consumption on cognitive function and subjective mood with the latter both using EEG technology. Following a cake and sweet-filled break, ironically after highlighting the dampening effects of a high GI diet and poor glucoregulation on cognitive function, was the first keynote speaker. Sarah Garfinkel (University of Sussex) highlighted some incredible findings about how good or poor people are at monitoring their own internal signals of cardiac activity, but also how good they think they are at recognising these signals. This research touched base with autism spectrum disorder as well as looking at people in different professions and their associated productivity.
The clock strikes 7pm and it’s time for food; three beautiful courses to be exact. This is not just a time to fill your boots but also a time to get to know some new people at the conference and also to catch up with some familiar faces who you may not have seen since the last conference. Personally, I feel like there’s nothing better to talk over with new faces than good food and coffee!
Day Two kicked off with a full English…sorry, I promise I’m writing a blog about the conference, but a girl’s gotta eat! Day Two scientifically kicked off with talks under the ‘Dietary Supplements’ umbrella; my kind of scene. The talks linked seamlessly starting with how B vitamins improve both objective and subjective sleep quality (Philippa Jackson, Northumbria University), and subsequently how B6 specifically influences neural inhibition in the visual cortex and is also associated with reduced feelings of anxiety (Jessica Eastwood, University of Reading). We then moved on to an ever-growing area of interest in the field, pre- and probiotic supplements. Andy Smith (University of Cardiff) found that breakfasts enriched with the prebiotic inulin were associated with improved wellbeing, mood and cognitive performance, despite the study being coined ‘the farting study’ by end of play. Leigh Gibson (University of Roehampton) found that a prebiotic intervention combined with a gluten/casein-free diet led to improvements in social behaviour in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. These talks highlighted that future research into this gut-brain relationship is necessary to discover what mechanisms are specifically driving these interactions.
After some mid-morning break pastries, we hit up the ‘Psychoactive drugs’ section with talks ranging from the alleviating effect of e-cigarettes from smoking withdrawal (Anna-Marie Marshall, Northumbria University), to looking at the effect of students drinking six vodka shots at 9am on mood and performance (and you thought your research was fun?!; Chris Alford, University of the West of England). A fellow PhD student did however talk of her struggle to make a cashier at Waitrose understand that the bottle of vodka she was buying every Monday morning was actually for research purposes; a story to remember if you’re ever having a bad start to your week.
For the majority of delegates, Day Two’s afternoon is free where you can explore the beautiful surroundings, catch up with some work, or take advantage of the hotel’s spa facilities. My afternoon was cut a touch short (not short enough to keep me away from the spa jacuzzi though), to attend the BPS Psychobiology section committee member meeting as the PsyPAG rep. This is where the committee discuss issues raised and resulting actions made following last year’s meeting plus any new initiatives to action. My role in this is to highlight ways we have succeeded in promoting the section to students and ways in which we can improve upon this further, alongside giving a student’s perspective on any section initiatives. The section itself offers a prize for the best final year undergraduate project in psychobiology, which includes whole conference attendance and an oral presentation. Bursaries for two postgraduate places at the conference are attainable each year but there are also 24-hour attendance packages for postgraduates as well at a good rate.
Another great thing about this conference is that the oral and poster sessions do not run parallel to one another, so your research gets heard. The poster session is just before the Day Two keynote, so you can expect everyone to be there instead of perhaps being distracted by lunch.
John Cryan (University College Cork) was the keynote speaker for the evening of Day Two and I was absolutely thrilled. I had seen him speak at the Nutrition Society’s Diet, Nutrition and the Brain Conference in London, 2016 and was enthralled by his work. It’s fair to say he once again did not disappoint. His work focuses on the microbiome and gut-brain interactions; an extremely popular topic in current science. Research flitted between human and animal models, most interestingly highlighting how during the natural birthing process the mother passes microbes on to the newborn, which are fundamentally bypassed if the child is born by C-section, resulting in an altered microbiome and an associated increased stress response later in life. Further research is necessary to determine whether the microbiome can be altered for the better via dietary interventions, which hopefully we will see in years to come at this conference.
Figure 2: Keynote speaker John Cryan, University College Cork, presenting a plethora of microbiome research
The clock struck 7pm and it was time to stop talking about the gut and to start feeding it once more at the conference dinner. Another three course delight with the added extra of the famous Annual Scientific Meeting quiz. Seventy-eight questions later, and I’m on the winning table for two years running, not that I’m counting…
The morning of Day Three was stress-full. Six talks back-to-back on stress, cortisol and cardiovascular activity – punny right? This rounded off the conference and the section chair, Philippa Jackson, was applauded for her efforts in creating an exceptional experience for all.
So as another Psychobiology conference comes to a close, I return to my desk at Northumbria yet again feeling like this is where I belong. Not my desk specifically (I do like to let my PhD shackles a little loose from time to time) but this field of research. It makes me realise that I’m not alone in my nutritional neuropsychology bubble; in fact I’m sharing my bubble with a lot more students and academics than I once thought. Many new delegates commented that it was one of the best conferences they had ever attended, in terms of both location and friendliness. It’s no wonder some of the delegates who attend have been in attendance 25 years on the trot, with many more years to come. After just two years I already feel like a ‘regular’ myself and have made many influential connections who I look forward to catching up with next year.
So to end, was the science really as good as the view? No, it was better.
Figure 3: Lake Windermere
Hannah Avery is a PhD student in the Brain, Performance & Nutrition Research Centre at Northumbria University.