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The poetry of biology
Shubha Tole, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai delivered an interesting lecture on brain wiring on the second day of the tenth D D Kosambi Festival of Ideas. Tole spoke about this complex subject with interesting experiments and humour

The poetry of biology

 

The DD Kosambi Festival of Ideas has always got speakers who manage to activate the thinking capacity of a human being in a totally new dimension, and this year’s speakers are no different. The speaker on February 14 at Kala Academy, Panaji, was Shubha Tole, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. Her topic interestingly titled ‘Wiring Up the Brain: Jab Yuvraj Singh ne Stuart Broad ke bowling pe che chakke mare, tab unke dimaag mein kya chal raha tha?’ was nothing to do with cricket and a lot to do with the functioning of the brain.

The developmental neuroscientist said that the brain is a computer programmed to build us up. “We grow from simple to complex from a single cell to a fully grown living being,” said Tole. Her talk was interspersed with humour and experiments. She pointed out that the purpose of life is to procreate and bring new life. “What is the purpose of an egg? It is to create more eggs. The main purpose of every living being is to ensure the survival of the species,” she said adding that thus science gives us an ultimate exercise in humility. “The lesson that we learn here is that however vast our experiences are, or whatever we achieve, all our experiences are in the purpose of making more eggs.”

Relying on zebrafish eggs for the purpose of research to see the initial phases of development, she negates the fact that Math and biology are disconnected: “Every cell needs to know how into many cells it has to divide to further multiply itself. And this happens very quickly,” she said.

She then went on to the subject at hand about the reflexes and how a cricketer can memorise his moves to give the desired results. Starting from a baby’s reflexes, she said that since a baby body is still learning control, his whole body will move in a reflex, but as we grow we start to condition our reflexes, to which she experimented by throwing soft balls at the audience. Some caught the balls, some ducked. “The actions are a result of the decisions your brain has made, and evolution would teach you decide what to do whether to catch, to duck or to hit out. In cricket it is programmed into your brain that your life is not important but the three wickets are, so you will hit the ball,” she said.

She further stated that every cell is programmed to grow in a certain manner and the neurons are also programmed in the certain fashion to grow and connect to other neurons. “We study how a normal circuit is formed to understand how that of people with autism or schizophrenia is wired,” she said.

She then went on to demonstrate the functioning of the brain and its wiring with the help of school students who volunteered to behave as neurons and parts of the brain. She used the example of the eye and showed how cells connect to each other. “When the rods and cones in the eyes are receive signal that is then transmitted to the vision area of the brain, then the signal moves to the decision part of the brain which is the same part where memories are created, but not stored. From there the signal then is sent to the spinal cord and then to the related part of the body that reacts to the initial signal.” This entire process was explained with the help of the map or spider webs created with help of the students who were tied with ribbons around their wrists.

She then showed how a horse is trained to gallop, trot, pace all at different combination and signals from the brain. “The movement is the same, but it can be carried out in a different rhythm or pattern to achieve each of these paces,” she said pointing out that this is what the brain can be conditioned to achieve.

The event is organised by Directorate of Art and Culture.

(On February 15 at 5 p.m. at Kala Academy, Panaji, Sugata Mitra: Professor of Educational Technology, Newcastle University, UK, will speak on the topic ‘The Future of Learning.’ It is open  to all.)

 

For the interaction with the audience, she made pointers

l The blueprint of the cell growth depends on interplay of genes and that decides how the cells divide, the pattern of division, the way they produce specialised cells. “They are shaped by evolution and executed by development.”

lWhen speaking of Alzheimer’s she said to take it as when the hard disk of a computer gets corrupted. There could be early markers that need to be identified to slow down the degeneration of the neurons.

l The mind is all in the brain and as for consciousness—different systems gain awareness at different times.

lInterestingly she spoke about sleep – saying that we spend a third of our lives sleeping and that sleeping is necessary as we ‘sleep to forget and sleep to remember.’ When we have a major decision to make we tend to sleep over it because while sleeping cells shrink and the gap between them become passage to throw away the garbage and thus clean out our channels. Thus giving us clarity to function after we wake up.

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