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Mapping the power of the brain

Scientists agree that neuroscience is a hot subject right now with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning ruling everyday tasks.
Last Updated 24 March 2024, 00:11 IST

We are getting to know more and more about our brains every day. Scientists agree that neuroscience is a hot subject right now with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning ruling everyday tasks. “In India, too we have more neuroscience being practised than ever before. Yet, there are no cures to mental illnesses such as dementia, movement disorders, autism etc., and the gap between research and solutions is wide in the global arena and in India,” noted Shona (Sumantra) Chattarji, a neuroscientist and the director of Centre for High Impact Neuroscience and Translational Applications, CHINTA TCG.

At a recent conference organised by the centre in Kolkata, some interesting advances in brain science were shared by Dr Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Maryland. His research focuses on the analysis of brain activity in mice which has gene mutations of relevance to psychiatric disease. His lab studied genetic models of these diseases from the perspective of integrative neuroscience and focused on understanding how a disease mutation leads to a behavioural trait. To achieve this, he employs a range of neuroscience techniques, including in vivo imaging, anesthetised and awake behavioural recordings, and optogenetics, which is the use of light to control brain activity. His research has direct relevance to schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and depression. He has worked for 15 years on schizophrenia to identify target areas in the brain at molecular levels.

He spoke about using brain scans in the brain at rest. For e.g., in people with depression, once their brains are scanned, a computer algorithm can be used to sort and map them into clusters. The differences in the maps can lead to a better understanding of the disease and the patients can receive different and customised treatments. The long-term goal of the SSPsyGene Consortium by NIMH, which begun in September 2023, was to build a comprehensively annotated resource describing the Central Nervous System function of all neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorder risk genes. The current target for the initiative is 100-250 protein-coding genes. 

The resulting data as visualised by behavioural traits will be integrated across modalities, levels of organisation, and genes to create a harmonised, integrated knowledge base needed to advance our understanding of basic gene function and, ultimately, make inferences into a potential shared and unique disease mechanisms.

Another initiative by NIMH is the Individually Measured Phenotypes to Advance
Computational Translation (IMPACT) for mental health. This programme is intended to enable data-driven precision assessments in psychiatry which could be transdiagnostic and cut across two or more traditional disorders. One can’t know yet the exact extent of a psychiatric condition that affects an individual. This initiative will develop and follow large groups of individuals with a shared range of psychopathology over time using large data of patients. This will be done through innovative behavioural tasks, multimodal measures, and computational methods to refine clinical assessments, improve prognosis, and optimise treatment in persons with mental disorders.

Relationships within this data would be identified using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning tools such as in Bayesian Models which are powerful tools in decision making. The end product of the computational techniques can help to decide which steps make diagnostics more refined, leading to tailored assessment tools in mental health. These data-driven solutions may also help to select more effective and targeted treatment options. He touched upon the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a collaborative research effort on the lines of the Human Genome project that aims to accelerate our understanding of the human brain. Its functions are to map the brain, understand neural circuits and accelerate neurological and psychiatric disorder research among others.

Launched in 2013 by the Obama administration, it involves collaboration among scientists, engineers, ethicists, and clinicians across various disciplines to advance our understanding of the brain’s complexity and function. The initiative is expected to have broad implications for neuroscience, medicine, and technology, potentially leading to ground-breaking discoveries and applications in the future.

In December, scientists involved in BRAIN deduced the complete cell map of a whole mammalian brain in a mouse which is similar to a human brain. This cellular map paves the way for a greater understanding of the human brain, accepted as the most powerful computer in the world. The cell atlas will also lead to the development of a new generation of precision therapeutics for people with mental disorders. The above can lead to specific gene therapy in Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s Disease.

Treatment of diseases is the end goal but to understand brain diseases, scientists need to know the exact functions of a normal brain and the above measures will come in handy and may accelerate the process.

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(Published 24 March 2024, 00:11 IST)

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