Hertie Foundation Lecture at FENS Forum

The Forum of European Neuroscience is the biggest European brain research conference, attracting thousands of participants. The Hertie Foundation sponsors one of the main lectures.

The eighth Hertie Foundation Lecture took place on Sunday, 8 July 2018, at the Forum of European Neuroscience in Berlin. Prof. Leslie B. Vosshall (US) gave a talk on "Thirst for blood: The neurobiology of mosquito behavior".

The seventh Hertie Foundation Lecture took place on 5 July 2016 at the Forum of European Neuroscience in Copenhagen. Prof. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (London) gave a talk on "The Social Brain in Adolescence".

Interview with Sarah Blakemore

What is the “social brain”? What is its purpose?

A large proportion of the human brain is involved in social interaction and understanding other people. The social brain is a complex network of areas that allow us to recognise others and evaluate their mental states (intentions, desires, and beliefs), feelings and actions. Over the past decades, research has shed light on how the brain enables the diverse set of functions that allow humans to understand and interact with each other. Brain areas involved in social cognitive processes include medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), inferior frontal gyrus, superior temporal sulcus (STS), the amygdala and anterior insula.

There is a rich literature on the development of social cognition in infancy and childhood, pointing to multiple changes in social cognitive abilities during the first five years of life. In the past decade or so, behavioural and neuroimaging studies have started to investigate the development of the social brain beyond childhood.

How do you study the social brain? Which methods do you apply?

We use brain imaging techniques (e.g. MRI, fMRI) as well as behavioural tasks to investigate questions about the social brain. Structural MRI allows us to look at the structural changes while functional MRI look at changes in brain activity during social interaction tasks, for example. We also use behavioural tasks to examine social cognition in adolescents. For example, we use computerised behavioural tasks to examine risk perception as well as pro-social behaviour in people in different age groups.

To put it simply, what is going on in our brain during adolescence?

The adolescent brain goes through an astonishing amount of development. If you look at the grey matter development in prefrontal cortex, it increases during childhood, peaks in late childhood and then during adolescence, there is a significant decline. The social brain undergoes both structural changes and functional change during adolescence, perhaps reflecting the ability for adolescents to adapt to the constant changes in the social environment.

Could you tell a few examples in which your research explains typical pubescent behaviour?

One of our studies looked at social influence on risk perception. We found that young adolescents' judgements on how risky a situation might be are most influenced by what other teenagers think, while most other age groups are more influenced by adults' view (Knoll, Magis-Weinberg, Speekenbrink & Blakemore, 2015). This study suggests that young adolescents value the opinions of similar aged peers more than the opinions of adults.

When does adolescence end? How can you identify the transition from teenage to adult brain from a neuroscientifically point?

Adolescence is the period of life that starts with the biological and physical changes of puberty until an individual achieve an independent and stable role in the society.  For many years it was believed that social brain development was mainly completed in early childhood but instead, research have shown that the brain continues to develop throughout adolescence and even into ‘20s and ‘30s.

Pre-frontal cortex is one of the brain areas that changes the most dramatically during adolescence. It is responsible for high level cognitive functions such as decision making, planning, as well as social interactions like mentalising and self-awareness. Several fMRI studies of social cognition have shown that medial prefrontal cortex activity decreases between adolescence and adulthood. For example, the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) was found to be more active in adolescents than in adults in an fMRI study that involved thinking about one's own intentions (Blakemore et al. 2007). 

Overview of previous lectures


The sixth Hertie Foundation Lecture took place on 9 July 2014 at the Forum of European Neuroscience in Milan. Prof. Svante Pääbo (Leipzig, Germany) gave a talk on “Of Neanderthals, Denisovans and Modern Humans”.


The fifth Hertie Foundation Lecture took place on 17 July 2012 at the Forum of European Neuroscience in Barcelona. Prof. Mu-ming Poo (Berkeley, USA) gave a talk on “Activity- and neurotrophin-dependent synaptic plasticity”.


The fourth Hertie Foundation Lecture took place on 5 July 2010 at the Forum of European Neuroscience in Amsterdam. Nobel Prize winner Prof. Linda Buck (Seattle, USA) gave a talk on “Mechanisms of odor and pheromone sensing in mammals”.


The third Hertie Foundation Lecture was due to take place in July 2008 at the Forum of European Neuroscience in Geneva. Nobel Prize winner Prof. Paul Greengard (New York, USA) was due to give a talk on “Signal transduction pathways used by therapeutic agents and drugs of abuse.” Unfortunately, this Hertie Foundation Lecture had to be cancelled because of illness.


The second Hertie Foundation Lecture took place on 9 July 2006 at the Forum of European Neuroscience in Vienna. Nobel Prize winner Prof. Eric Kandel (New York, USA) gave a talk on “The Vienna School of Medicine and the origins of Austrian expressionism”.


The first Hertie Foundation Lecture took place on 11 July 2004 at the Forum of European Neuroscience in Lisbon. Prof. G. J. Laurent (Pasadena, USA) gave a talk on “Neural codes for odor: why are circuit dynamics useful?”


Dr. Alexander Grychtolik
+49 69 66 07 56-156