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NBRC turns 11 years old – and reflects on ‘How the brain tells the new from the old’

Supriya Bhavnani

NBRC Logo
NBRC Logo  

December 16th 2014 marked the 11th Foundation day of the National Brain Research Centre, Manesar. Following past tradition, the celebrations for this special occasion were initiated with visits by children from schools in the vicinity, thus fulfilling the institute’s commitment to making neuroscience accessible to broader society. A public event was held at India International Centre, New Delhi, attended by students and staff of NBRC along with members of the general public. The heads of various other research institutions also graced this occasion by their presence. Prof K. Vijayraghavan, Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, took this opportunity to announce an initiative of DBT, to be spear-headed by NBRC, to uncover the effect of malnutrition on the development of the brain. Dr T. S. Rao, nodal officer for NBRC at DBT, and Prof P. N. Tandon, the President of NBRC Society, took to the podium and highlighted the various advances that NBRC has made in the past year, particularly with respect to incorporating the state-of-the-art brain imaging technique of magnetic encephalography (MEG). Following this, Prof S. Sinha, Director of NBRC, gave the audience a brief tour of the breadth and scope of neurobiological research being conducted in the institute.

This was followed by an engrossing public lecture delivered by the honourable chief guest, Prof Mani Ramaswami, titled ‘How the brain tells the new from the old (And why it matters)’. Prof Ramaswami is currently working at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland where his laboratory is focused on understanding the molecular and neural control of complex behaviours such as habituation and learning and memory. This complicated area of research was put forward in a relatively simple manner by Prof Ramaswami through a description of his work in olfactory habituation in the fruit-fly – Drosophila melanogaster. Briefly, when naïve flies are exposed to an odour, they tend to avoid it. However, when the flies are pre-exposed to the odour, their aversive response reduces since they get habituated to it. A characteristic feature of habituation is its reversal by the presentation of an unrelated stimulus. According to Prof Ramaswami, this suggests that the neural correlate for the initial aversive response remains unchanged but its manifestation is suppressed. Using the genetic tools of Drosophila he elegantly demonstrated that increased inhibition of the olfaction neural circuitry is necessary and sufficient to induce olfactory habituation. Further, he briefly discussed the relevance of this observation to Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), a set of highly prevalent neurodevelopmental disorders that affects human society and is a major cause of learning disability in young children and adults. In particular, he speculates that most of the symptoms of autism such as obsessive behaviour could be explained by a reduction of inhibition in the brain of affected individuals. This engaging lecture left the audience yearning for more, as was evident by the number of questions that resulted from it.

The Foundation day celebrations ended in high spirits with everyone giving their good wishes for the future of the unique organisation that is the National Brain Research Centre.