'Sense of smell helped understand the brain'

'Sense of smell helped understand the brain'

'Sense of smell helped understand the brain'

But how does the brain perform these functions? How does it perceive sensory information and how does it form memories? These were the questions that drove Prof Upinder S Bhalla, a winner of the 2017 Infosys Science Prize in the Life Sciences Category, to study about the sense of smell.

Bhalla, a professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in the city, received the award for his work on understanding the computational machinery of the brain.

Talking about his research, Bhalla said: "The brain like any computing system has to take inputs from the outside world and encode it. We found that with the smell, multiple things are encoded like the identity of the smell, the intensity of the odour, and even the direction from which the smell is coming from." One of his discoveries was that animals have a 'stereo' sense of smell, which means that they use the left and right nostrils to get information on different aspects of the smell.

"We looked at how animals use both nostrils to get the extra dimension to find the source of the smell. We used rats trained to follow trails drawn using chocolate and we analysed how it learned to track objects," Bhalla said.

He has also worked on understanding how memories are stored in the brain. "One of the insights we got is that there are molecular 'memory switches' in our brain similar to the logic gates you have in a computer. These switches are present in the synapses and the mechanism is used to store information for a long time," the professor said.

On the application of his research, Bhalla said: "The more you understand how the brain functions, the better you understand processes of dysfunction. For example, the molecular switches involved in storing memories are coded by genes. If there is a mutation, knowledge of the molecules will help us understand what drugs or treatment can be used to repair the damage." It could also have an implication on the field of artificial intelligence which has been capturing the world's attention.

"The future of artificial intelligence will depend on understanding how natural intelligence works. Computing as a technical field is increasingly relying on insights about how the brain does things. If you want your computer or smartphone to understand what you are saying when you speak, you should start by understanding how the brain works," Bhalla said.

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