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Inside the Mastermind

It takes grit and gray matter to transform 38 acres of a forest, overrun by cattle and hostile villagers, into a national center for excellence in brain research, reports Neha Mehta.

delhi Updated: Apr 09, 2007 04:54 IST
Neha Mehta

It takes grit and gray matter to transform 38 acres of a forest, overrun by cattle and hostile villagers, into a national center for excellence in brain research.

But for 53-year-old Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath, the mastermind behind Manesar's National Brain Research Center (NBRC), it’s all in a day’s hard work spread over the last seven years.

In 2000, when Ravindranath was appointed the founder-director of the NBRC, she became the first woman from the Ministry of Science and Technology to head a national lab. There were murmurs in the scientific fraternity as to how a ‘woman’ would set up a new institute. Manesar being a juddering two-hour ride from the capital, with virtually no infrastructure, Ravindranath faced several other obstacles as well. “The first day we started work, villagers threatened to beat up our engineers,” she reminisced.

Brain disorders contribute to one-third of the disease burden in developing countries, a fact rarely acknowledged. “There are no cures for most brain disorders,” Ravindranath pointed out. “And you can’t lower their incidence by better public health or primary health care.”

Ravindranath stands vindicated today with her ‘baby’ having grown into a research center and a deemed university. NBRC is an example of brain gain, with all its faculty drawn from leading neuroscience in Vandervilt, Princeton, UC Irvine and Berkley in the US.

“The number of students applying to the NBRC has been steadily increasing by 20 per cent every year,” said the Director, known by all as Viji. “Science is an extremely male-dominated field. Women need to help each other by creating a support structure for themselves and network with other women.”

There is no hierarchy at the NBRC, and faculty reports to her. “They are given independent labs, scientific independence and resources,” she said. And she involves them in administrative decisions. “If you look at institutions like the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, it’s this decentralisation that has made a difference.”

Her research focuses on how the female hormone estrogen protects the female brain from Parkinson’s disease. The goal is to design drugs for men suffering from Parkinson’s, which would have the neuro-protective effects of estrogen — but not its hormonal effects.

Her lab recently achieved ‘dramatic’ results in examining the pharmacological basis of action of medicinal plants used in Ayurveda to treat dementia. “There's a lot of substance to Ayurveda. We are trying to isolate active ingredients and are in the process of patenting our findings.”

Living away from family, Ravindranath’s joy is the rare days she can be home by 7 pm and take a walk before dinner.
And the quest to demystify the human brain continues.

First Published: Apr 09, 2007 04:52 IST