Serotonin, an important neurotransmitter (sometimes called the happy chemical, because it contributes to wellbeing and happiness), was the subject of an international conference which took place at University College Cork this week.

Hosted by the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience and the SFI Research Centre APC Microbiome Ireland, the “Serotonin on the Wild Atlantic Way” International Society for Serotonin Research conference included some of the leading serotonin researchers in the world.

Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter involved in many gut and brain functions, including emotions, memory and cognition. In fact, most currently available antidepressants act to boost serotonin levels to improve mood. However, over 90% of human body’s total serotonin is found in the gut where it helps to regulate bowel movements. Research presented during the conference highlighted the latest serotonin developments relating to the gut microbiome, brain function and behaviour including advances in the diagnosis and treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

"Understanding the role of the gut microbiome and diet in linking gut and brain health is of fundamental importance for the future of healthcare" said Professor John F Cryan, chair of the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience in University College Cork and Principal Investigator at APC Microbiome Ireland. Prof Cryan drew attention to the similarities between the Irish and serotonin during the opening ceremony of the meeting, commenting that "like being Irish, serotonin is in your blood".

The meetings saw an influx of almost 200 international delegates to Cork and contributed over €300,000 to the local economy. It is the latest example of the success of the Cork Convention Bureau and Meet in Ireland ‘Conference Ambassador’ programme.

"We had an exciting week of science and culture" said Dr Gerard Clarke "and the meeting is a great example of University College Cork and the local community in both Cork City and County working together to showcase the very best that Ireland has to offer".

“Cork is taking its rightful place on the world stage in recognition of the high-quality serotonin-related research conducted by UCC and APC Microbiome Ireland" added Dr Siobhain O’Mahony. Past meetings have been held in Hermanus (South Africa), Montreal (Canada), Seattle (USA) and Sapporo (Japan).

“This was an excellent week of science that brought together world renowned experts from a variety of disciplines; I am sure that some of our future therapies for psychiatric disorders and gut dysfunction will have germinated from the knowledge exchanged at this conference” added Dr Olivia O’Leary.

A particularly exciting aspect of the conference was the inclusion of 'Pioneers and Prodigies' sessions, where fifteen highly talented graduate students and postdocs presented their research. Promoting emerging young investigators actively involved in serotonin research is a shared ambition of both APC Microbiome Ireland and the International Society of Serotonin Research.

In addition to the 14 parallel conference sessions, three plenary lectures took place:

Dr Patricia Gaspar gave the 2018 Irvine Page Plenary Lecture. Dr Gaspar is a Research Director (DR1), at Inserm in the 'Institut du Fer Moulin' a Neuroscience Center on brain development and plasticity. Dr. Gaspar’s work has focused on the developmental role of neurotransmitters and in particular the impact of early 5-HT dysfunction on neural circuit development in neuropsychiatric disorders. Using genetic approaches in mice, her research team was the first to demonstrate the role of 5-HT signalling on activity-dependent circuit maturation in the barrel cortex and in the visual system. Currently her lab is examining the role of guidance molecules on 5-HT pathway development, and on the mechanisms underlying the effects of early-life stress on brain wiring.

Professor Mark Geyer gave the 2018 Maurice Rapport Plenary Lecture. Professor Geyer is the former Vice Chair for Research in Psychiatry and currently directs the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit of the VISN 22 VA’s Mental Illness Research, Clinical, and Education Center at UC San Diego. Professor Geyer’s research has focused on the development of parallel behavioural paradigms in animals and humans for use in psychiatric drug discovery. He is a pioneer in the translational study of sensorimotor gating deficits in schizophrenia and related animal models and the development of a behavioural pattern monitor for rodents and man with cross-species translational relevance.

Dr. Kathryn Cunningham gave the 2018 Paul Vanhoutte Distinguished lecture. Professor Cunningham is the Chauncey Leake Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Texas. Kathryn’s research has focused on improving our understanding of the neuropsychopharmacology of drugs of abuse with the aim of developing new medications for the treatment of psychostimulant abuse and neuropsychiatric conditions such as binge eating disorder, and obesity as well as novel serotonergic medications to extend abstinence.

A full programme for the conference can be seen here.