THERE are new tools to study the brain but what's really new is the way we are learning about the brain – by harnessing the combined power of students and faculty of diverse backgrounds, and making Malaysia an international centre for brain studies.
The Neuroinformatics School at UTP's Centre for Advanced and Professional Education, working with the International Brain Research Organisation (IBRO), hosts two-week-long encounters for scholars whose experiential learning is scientifically analysed and brain networks scrutinised using the latest tools.
At these forays into brain research, the cutting edge is laced with diversity as diversity innovates. With more minds coming together from different ethnic, cultural, spiritual and experiential backgrounds, UTP is able to come up with fresh ideas.
Already, diversity of thought and the unexpected angles of a challenge are generating greater debate and possible solutions that are more innovative and complete. Here, a sampling of experts and participants at the first International Brain Research Organisation (IBRO) Neuroinformatics programme were gathered in Kuala Lumpur.
Kaneshka Sharma used to meditate every morning and evening. "Meditation provides the template for chaos to be synchronised to make appropriate decisions fast," says the senior research fellow at the Institute of Nuclear Medicine & Allied Sciences, India, on a fellowship from the Defence Research & Development Organisation.
The intuitive Sharma had always veered towards neuroscience. He is just two months short of completing his thesis – introducing meditation as a training tool in the Indian defence forces. His purpose is to enable soldiers to regulate their stress and emotions when faced with conflict, and building resilience through regular meditation. "I believe, and my friends have said, that I'm able to perceive, feel and see things before they happen. I've always wanted to know how this happens and the cause of it."
Associate Professor Alex Fornito of Monash University finds the brain's complexity both daunting and inspiring. According to him, how thoughts and behaviour arise from a biological matter is a fundamental question and one of the toughest challenges for humans to overcome. "Our entire experience of the world, everything we hold dear, everything we hope for and dream about, arises from the co-ordinated activity of the cells residing in our brain," he says.
Dr Hiba Abuelgasim of Sudan readily admits that studying the brain with just a brain may not be enough. The Kyoto University PhD student is researching traumatic brain injury and its effects on cognition. She was brought up by her grandfather who eventually succumbed to Alzheimer's disease. Hiba, who was always interested in neuroscience and degenerative diseases, is now focusing on neuropsychiatry.
Says the physician: "The fact that we study the brain with our brain makes it hard to know. We can't get to 100 per cent of it. To unravel everything about the brain, maybe we need something else."
An adult brain weighs up to 1,400 grams and consists of two per cent of total body weight. "Yet any minor progress in capturing the fundamental processes leading to the anatomical organisation or functional connectivity of the brain may have enormous ramifications for improving human experiences," says Associate Professor Ivo Dinov of the University of Michigan.
Pierre Berthet, a PhD student at Stockholm University, is interested to know how people make choices. "How do we decide what's good and what's bad? The way we learn to select the best action and depending on the outcome of our thoughts, coming from a specific area in the brain and yet involving the whole brain."
With a background in psychology, he focuses on neuron network simulation. He uses computer simulation to look at mathematical formulations of how the dynamics of these changes in choices happen. "Depending on the value of the reward, how fast do we switch from left to right when deciding on the best action?"
Everything we do or decide not to do comes down to some function in the brain. "And yet we know so little about it," says Dr Satrajit Ghosh of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "The brain is an intrinsic part of ourselves and we sometimes forget the capabilities it brings to our existence. Except when we see deviations from what is called normal behaviour."
"This is the century of the brain and it is one of its grandest challenges," says Dr Eric Ho, a senior lecturer at UTP and convenor of the IBRO programme. "Biology is the new animated research area, and unravelling the brain's complexities is the new frontier."
Dr Ho says although the neuro-informatics community has been growing in the last decades, the big data revolution has propelled neuroscience into a very data-intensive realm. Research into the interpretation of neuroscience data through computer models and analytical tools has gained momentum, especially with worldwide recognition of the mental disease burden and the aging population.
Dr Ho, a PETRONAS scholar and UTP alumnus, was impressed with the diversity and skills of the students and by their passion and tenacity. "One or two of the students knew more about one of the tools, as they were in touch with the inventors. They then generously shared their knowledge by taking over a class."
With the changing learning landscape, Dr Ho is certain that, in classrooms of the future, learning will take place through one another's experiences. As proven by this school's course content, one of the first in the emerging field of brain network analysis. "A really cutting-edge area where study of the brain as interactivity between cells, similar to social networks, will propel new insights into how the brain works or gets sick."