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The rising wave of brain research

LiveMint logoLiveMint 25-06-2017 Narayan Ramachandran

One hundred years ago a frenzy of scientific developments in atomic science began. Scientists like Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, Frédéric and Irène Curie-Joliot and James Chadwick were putting the pieces together that would eventually lead to splitting the atom. Jewish scientists of German origin began migrating to the US in the 1930s—Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi among them. By 1942, these activities, with the specific purpose of building an atom bomb, were led by Fermi at the University of Chicago. At the end of that year, 6 tons of uranium using manually operated cadmium rods achieved criticality: a self-sustaining nuclear reaction. For the “Manhattan Project”, that lead to the only two deployed nuclear devices, the powerful Uranium 235 was used for “Little Boy” and was substituted by the even more efficient Plutonium 239 for “Fat Man”. In roughly 30-40 years the world went from a flurry of coordinated science to (devastatingly) functional technology. We now live with and may perish from its consequences.

Even without an imperative of war, the scientific world is currently in a similar wave of frenzied exploration centered on the human brain. Former US president Barack Obama announced the US’ BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative in 2013, the European Union added its own Human Brain Project a couple of years later, as did China in 2016. Major centres around the world—the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, the Riken Brain Science Institute in Japan, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle, Janelia Campus at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Virginia, the Blue Brain Project at IBM and the The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to name a few—are engaged in cutting-edge research.

Human knowledge has progressed using the building blocks that came before it. Large technology programs like the Manhattan Project brought together scientists from many disciplines either in an organic way or in a specifically coordinated manner. The Human Genome Project (HGP) is an example of a recent and successful international collaborative initiative to decode the human genome. The $3 billion project was started in 1990 by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the US department of energy (DoE) and was completed earlier than its expected 15 years partly because of wide collaboration. Today’s brain research projects are the first ones in the age of social media and inter-disciplinary collaboration across institutes using modern and flexible tools of collaboration, and are likely to produce a treasure trove of insights. Some of that has already begun.

There are some widely used elements in modern brain research. The study of neurogenetics was substantially helped by HGP. A flood of new sequencing technologies has allowed scientists to understand genetic pathways that cause neurological and psychiatric disorders. Scientists have made remarkable progress in understanding the genetic signatures of Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, depression and autism, among others. Through an exciting series of developments, the brain is now understood to be plastic, meaning an adult brain is widely adaptive in its scope and scale. Optogenetics, pioneered in Stanford University, has allowed scientists to turn specific neurons on and off, thus enabling the understanding of which neurons are used for a specific activity. Optogenetics has also helped to understand the role of glial cells long thought to be merely “packaging material” but now credited with critical roles in learning and memory. Neural imaging has meant that memory itself has evolved in our understanding. Unlike a hard disk, memory appears to be written on brain cells in a very gentle way, more impressionist than baroque. There has also been a revolution in implantable technologies. In years to come, many deficiencies may be mitigated with very specifically targeted implants. A brain-connected retinal implant, for instance, may substantially alter lost eyesight.

In a country where suicide among young women rivals maternal disorders as the leading cause of death, the importance of neuroscience research, both basic and clinical, cannot be overemphasized. In India, basic brain science research is conducted in only a few places though clinical research takes place in more locations. The National Brain Research Centre, located just outside Delhi, and the Indian Institute of Science’s endowed centre for neuroscience are two such research centers.

Indian diaspora scientists and doctors are among the leaders in brain science research elsewhere so it should be possible, given the institutional will, to attract them back to the country in the way that China has done through its thousand talents plan. As medicine and general medical care extends life expectancy in our country, mental health from cradle to grave—developmental disorders, autism, depression, anxiety, drug addiction, suicide, Alzheimer’s and dementia—are likely to become bigger and bigger parts of our disease burden.

India should launch its own brain project with funding (I suggest Rs5,000 crore) focused on basic and clinical science tailored to neuroscience problems and issues faced in our population. It is not an expensive luxury, it will soon become a necessity.

P.S. The chief function of the body is to carry the brain around, said Thomas Edison.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com

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