Festive Symposium 2021

BNA Event - 13th Dec 2021

Ding Dong Merrily on AI

The 2021 online Festive symposium 'Ding Dong Merrily on AI' on the 13th of December will mark the launch of The BNA’s annual theme for 2022 - Artificial Intelligence: What can AI tell us about biological intelligence, and how can AI be used to interrogate neuroscience data and learn more about the nervous system?

We look forward to you joining us online for a fun and festive day of exploring AI, neuroscience, and the brain.


BNA Festive symposia
BNA Awards
Festive Fancy Dress competition


10:10 - Christopher Summerfield - University of Oxford
Shake your Foundations: the future of neuroscience in a world where AI is less rubbish

Watch on YouTube here

10:30 - Dan Jamieson - Biorelate Ltd
AI tools for drug discovery and literature search

Watch on YouTube here

11:20 - Mihaela van der Schaar - University of Cambridge
Quantitative Epistemology: How Machine Learning can help humans become better decision-makers

Watch on YouTube here

11:40 - Aldo Faisal - Imperial College London
The virtuous-cycle: AI for Neuroscience and vice versa

Watch on YouTube here

12:25 - Thomas Nowotny - University of Sussex
Insect AI – what we can learn from humble creatures 

Watch on YouTube here

13:50 - Eleni Vasilaki - University of Sheffield
Sparse Reservoir Computing

Watch on YouTube here

14:10 - George Cevora- Arca Blanca
Adversarial Examples: instability in deep learning or vision in general?

Watch on YouTube here

14:50 - Henry Shevlin - University of Cambridge
Uncanny communicators: social AI and the future of cognitive science

Watch on YouTube here



Christopher Summerfield - University of Oxford
Speaker Biography
Christopher Summerfield is a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford and heads the Human Information Processing lab, focussed on understanding the computational mechanisms by which humans make decisions, and how these processes are implemented in the brain. He is tutorial fellow at Wadham College and a consultant at Google Deepmind. Christopher is also a great speaker, you may consider looking at his talks about neural structural alignment, neural networks, rationality of distorted perception and human-centred AI.

Talk: Shake your Foundations: the future of neuroscience in a world where AI is less rubbish
Artificial Intelligence Research is being turned on its head by the advent of what has become known as Foundation Models. These are very big generative models that can be queried to produce natural language and images. These models are still not robust, but they look set to bring about major changes that will permeate rapidly down to our everyday lives. What does this mean for neuroscience? What can we do with models that can actually approximate some (limited) aspects of human behaviour? More generally, what is the outlook for neuroscience over the next decade? And how am I ever going to discuss this topic in just ten minutes?

Dan Jamieson - Biorelate Ltd
Speaker Biography
Dan Jamieson is CEO and co-founder of Biorelate Ltd, which is using the power of AI to provide comprehensive and up-to-date curation of biomedical research. Articles are put through a series of deep learning and natural language processing software services that have been built to understand biomedical research, enabling over 30 million articles to be auto-curated in under 6 hours, and accelerating research intelligence for drug discovery.  Dan started his career with an undergraduate degree in Biology, followed by MRes Bioinformatics and Computational Biology and PhD in text mining molecular interactions, before moving into the commercial sector and working for Merck, Pfizer and most recently Biorelate.

Talk: AI tools for drug discovery and literature search
Yesterday, Biorelate received an urgent communication all the way from the North Pole by none other than Santa Claus himself. Unfortunately, though, it was not good news. Santa was embarking on a routine training exercise with his reindeer when he noticed that they looked rather unwell. All of Santa’s reindeer were displaying symptoms of weight loss, hypersalivation and ataxia. The vet told him they were likely suffering from Chronic Wasting Disease, for which there is no known cure. Biorelate are now working round the clock to see if they can shed any light on the mechanisms behind Chronic Wasting Disease from the plethora of data hidden away in the literature. They hope that with this level of understanding, they will help Santa and his elves more accurately direct their magical drug discovery powers in finding a cure. Tune in next week to find out how they got on and if Biorelate saved Christmas!

Mihaela van der Schaar - University of Cambridge
Speaker Biography
Mihaela van der Schaar is the John Humphrey Plummer Professor of Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and Medicine at the University of Cambridge, where she leads the van der Schaar Lab, one of the most impactful and diverse teams in the field.  They employ a wide range of Machine Learning approaches including deep learning, causal inference, AutoML, time series analysis, ensemble learning, and many more, with the goal of improving healthcare and medical knowledge.

Quantitative Epistemology: How Machine Learning can help humans become better decision-makers
Quantitative Epistemology is a transformational new area of research pioneered by our lab in Cambridge as a strand of machine learning aimed at understanding, supporting, and improving human decision-making. Our methods aim to studying human decision-making, identifying potential suboptimalities in beliefs and decision processes (such as cognitive biases, selective attention, imperfect retention of past experience), and understanding risk attitudes and their implications for learning and decision-making. This would allow us to construct decision support systems that provide humans with information pertinent to their intended actions, their possible alternatives and counterfactual outcomes, as well as other evidence to empower better decision-making.

Aldo Faisal - Imperial College London
Speaker Biography

Prof Dr Aldo Faisal (@FaisalLab) is Professor of Artificial Intelligence & Neuroscience at the Dept. of Bioengineering and the Dept. of Computing at Imperial College London. In 2019 Aldo become the founding director of the £20Mio UKRI Centre for Doctoral Training in AI for Healthcare, and leads the Behaviour Analytics Lab at the Data Science Institute (London). Aldo works at the interface of Machine Learning, Neuroscience and translational Biomedical engineering to help people in diseases and health. He currently is one of the few engineers world-wide that lead their own clinical trials to validate their technology, In this space his works focusses on Human Augmentation, Digital Biomarkers and AI for medical intervention (Makin et al,Nat Biomed Eng; Komorowski et al, NatMed, 2018; Gottessmann et al NatMed, 2019). His work received a number of prizes and awards, including the $50,000 Research Discovery Prize by the Toyota Foundation.

Talk: The virtuous-cycle: AI for Neuroscience and vice versa.
AI is revolutionising the world, but how can we harness its power for changing how we do science? In our lab, we focus on the interplay between human and artificial brains, what they have in common, and most importantly how we can use principles from neuroscience to improve technology and use frameworks from technology to advance neuroscience. We will showcase examples highlighting how robotics and AI can be used to design structurally new questions in neuroscience.

Thomas Nowotny - University of Sussex
Speaker Biography
Thomas is a co-director of the Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics, and leads a research group using computational and hybrid systems approaches to better understand the properties and function of sensory and motor systems.  His research is focused around chemical sensing, in both animals and machines, GPU acceleration of computational neuroscience methods, bio-mimetic robot controllers, and hybrid computer-brain experimentation, with interests including Machine Learning methods for chemical sensing with electronic noses.

Talk: Insect AI – what we can learn from humble creatures
Deep learning has made a large impact on what we can achieve with machine learning and AI. However, it is not how animals learn and can be fragile and very resource intensive. In my presentation I will highlight some results where algorithms inspired by insect anatomy, physiology and behaviour are offering different solutions. Specific examples are our work on classification algorithms inspired by insect mushroom bodies and how odour onset asynchrony can be exploited for separating odour sources. I believe that, perhaps less sophisticated, insect-inspired algorithms can be the basis for more simple, robust, and efficient AI. At the end I will show in a live demonstration how the auditory system of the attendees uses the same principles to separate sounds sources that we hypothesize for odour source separation in the olfactory system of insects.

Eleni Vasilaki - University of Sheffield
Speaker Biography
Eleni VasilakiI is the chair of Bioinspired Machine Learning at the University of Sheffield, and the head of the Machine Learning research group. Eleni specialises in Bioinspired Machine Learning, Neuromorphic Computing, Computational Neuroscience; some of her most recent work has focussed on Echo State Networks, a key reservoir computing method. Accordant with her early education in Athens, she has also written a very interesting article on Epicurus, as the father of Reinforcement Learning.

Talk: Sparse Reservoir Computing
Sparse neural networks, in which relatively few neurons or connections are active, are common in both machine learning and neuroscience. While, in machine learning, ``sparsity'' is related to a penalty term that leads to some connecting weights becoming small or zero, in biological brains, sparsity is often created when high spiking thresholds prevent neuronal activity. Here, we introduce sparsity into a reservoir computing network via neuron-specific learnable thresholds of activity, allowing neurons with low thresholds to contribute to decision-making but suppressing information from neurons with high thresholds. This approach, which we term ``SpaRCe,'' optimizes the sparsity level of the reservoir without affecting the reservoir dynamics. We test SpaRCe on classification problems and find that threshold learning improves performance compared to standard reservoir computing. SpaRCe alleviates the problem of catastrophic forgetting, a problem most evident in standard echo state networks (ESNs) and recurrent neural networks in general, due to increasing the number of task-specialised neurons that are included in the network decisions.

George Cevora- Arca Blanca
Speaker Biography
George Cevora is the chief data scientist at Arca Blanca. During his PhD in Computational Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, he collaborated with Rik Henson on the role of Prediction Error in Probabilistic Associative Learning. Since leaving academia George has been applying Machine Learning to domains ranging from jet engines to bacterial populations. George has also developed Rosa - a system fighting bias and discrimination in AI. George currently leads a team of Data Scientists performing applied research within the field of AI for some of the largest companies in the UK.

Talk: Adversarial Examples: instability in deep learning or vision in general?
Instability is a phenomenon within AI in which a very small change in the input causes a very large change in the output. Most often this takes form of Adversarial Examples - a tiny but carefully designed change to a picture, imperceptible to humans, which causes a Machine Vision system to dramatically change its classification of the image in an unexpected way. This may pose a significant danger when AI systems are deployed and hostile actors attempt to mislead them. My team is currently investigating the origins of the instability and how we can counter the issue. In this talk I will argue that instability may be unavoidable given how we are currently framing Machine Vision tasks, but that solutions exist to make AI systems safe. Lastly, I will postulate that humans are not immune to Adversarial Examples, but that their occurrence is simply extremely improbable.

Henry Shevlin - Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence
Speaker Biography
Henry Shevlin is a Senior Researcher at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (CFI) at the University of Cambridge, where he is also one of Course Leads for CFI's new Masters program in AI Ethics. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the CUNY Graduate Centre and a BPhil in Philosophy from the University of Oxford. His research focuses on questions in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, applied ethics, and animal cognition. His recent works include publications on AI consciousness, moral rights for robots, assessment of animal suffering, and creativity in non-humans.

Talk: Uncanny communicators: social AI and the future of cognitive science
Recent advances in AI in the field of natural language processing have resulted in a new wave of systems that can converse ever more believably and fluidly with human users. Already, these Large Language Models are finding commercial applications in the form of AI ‘friends’ and therapists like Replika and Woebot and games like AI Dungeon. Perhaps most strikingly, many users seem to sincerely attribute thoughts, desires, and even emotions to the systems they interact with. In this short talk, I summarize the current state of these technologies and suggest that contrary to some user experiences, few cognitive scientists would take ascriptions of mental states to these systems seriously. This, in turn, creates a dilemma for cognitive scientists in the coming decades: should we play the role of ‘killjoys’ and attempt to debunk the idea that these systems have mental states, or – in light of changing norms of ascription among the general public – instead attempt to revise our scientific concepts to accommodate these ‘uncanny communicators’?


BNA Festive Symposia

The BNA Festive Symposium is one of the most popular events in the neuroscience calendar, with a reputation for lively and inclusive programmes which attract people interested in neuroscience across all stages of their career. Previous years' events have sold-out weeks in advance and have been covered by BBC Radio Four's 'All in the Mind.

This year’s symposium will be held online.  This is because of ongoing travel anxiety and uncertainty due to the COVID19 pandemic, and also because we found that holding the previous year's Festive Symposium online (in 2020) greatly increased the accessibility and ability of people to attend from further away.

To maintain the sense of occasion, excitement and interaction, the talks will be delivered live, to maximize engagement of all attendees.  We have also made the talks and the day shorter than the in-person event, to allow for those who are multi-tasking and home-working. 

BNA Awards 

The BNA Festive Symposium will feature the presentation of the following BNA Awards for 2021.

  • Announcement of fancy dress competition prize winners!
  • Undergraduate prize 
  • Postgraduate prize 
  • Outstanding contribution to neuroscience 
  • Public engagement of neuroscience 



We are pleased to announce that this event has been approved by the Federation of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of the United Kingdom for 2 category 1 (external) CPD credit(s).

Please contact the BNA office (office@bna.org.uk), after the event to obtain a certificate of attendance. 


Fancy-dress competition

Our Festive meetings are always an opportunity for enjoyment and socializing as well as science, and we're determined to make sure the online version is no different!

We will be running a fancy-dress competition for all speakers, participants and delegates, on the theme of 'Festive', where we encourage you to embody the festive spirit in any way shape or form, whether relating to any religion or none, and where creativity and individuality is especially welcomed.

Prizes of suitable frivolity will be on offer!

To enter the competition:

  • dress up in your costume of choice on 13th December
  • send in a photo of yourself via Twitter or Instagram, making sure to tag the BNA (@BritishNeuro on Twitter or @britishneuroscienceassociation on Instagram) and with hashtags #RobeYourLobes (geddit...) and #BNAFestiveSymposium
  • or, if you prefer, send by email to office@bna.org.uk
  • Please ensure you have entered the competition by 2pm (GMT) on Monday 13th December 

Winners will be announced at the end of the day, and invited to 'the stage' to share their costumes in all their glory!


Miltenyi Biotec 

Miltenyi Biotec is a global provider of products and services that advance biomedical research and cellular therapy. Our innovative tools support research at every level, from basic research to translational research to clinical application. This integrated portfolio enables scientists and clinicians to obtain, analyze, and utilize the cell. Our technologies cover techniques of sample preparation, cell isolation, cell sorting, flow cytometry, cell culture, molecular analysis, and preclinical imaging. 

British Neuro-oncology Society

The British Neuro-oncology Society (BNOS) exists to:

  • promote high-quality neuro-oncology research, education and multidisciplinary patient-centred care; and
  • understand brain tumours to ensure the very best care is  provided to all patients

BNOS provides interactive and collaborative opportunities between the diverse neuro-oncology disciplines; specialist  education and training for junior scientists and clinicians; and offers opportunities for abstract presentations, awards and bursaries. Additionally, BNOS strives to act as the voice of neuro-oncology in the political process, promoting increased research funding and up-to-date utilisation of treatments and techniques in clinical practice.


The BNOS 2022 society annual meeting is taking place on 22nd - 24th June 2022 in Liverpool! Save the date, more details to come! 


Sponsor the Festive Symposium for just £350 + VAT!
Click here for full information about the sponsorship package and how your organisation can get involved. 

If your organisation is interested in supporting this event or other BNA activities, then please contact office@bna.org.uk.


Registration for this event is now closed.


The BNA Festive Symposium 2021 is FREE for members!  Please click here to join if you are not already a member - membership brings with it loads of benefits and costs as little as £12 per year

There are costs associated with holding the event and therefore a fee will apply to non-members as follows:

Type Fee
BNA Member fee FREE
Standard non-member fee (including early career researchers and retirees) £10.80 (£8.50+VAT)
Subsidised non-member fee (for school students, undergraduates and postgraduates, and those from Low or Middle Income Countries*) £5.10 (£4.25+VAT)

*To be eligible for Low and Middle Income Countries subsidised fee rates, you must be based full time (working or studying at an institution) in one of the countries listed here on the Wellcome website, which uses information from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Please note that we may follow up with individuals who register using LMIC rates to check they are based in one of the eligible countries.


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