Smelling the rainbow

When the Nobel Prizes are due to be announced, usually around this time of the year, there is always excitement in the air for the scientific community, as well as for all those interested in how science helps humans to unravel the secrets of the natural world and then, based on such understanding, to devise applications that help to make our lives better.

It may take a long time before a discovery in fundamental science leads to the invention of a technology with real practical impact, but for a start the discovery itself is a cause and certainly a very good reason for celebration and for honouring the scientists whose struggle, hard work and years of dedication finally shed light on some aspect of their field of study which signals a breakthrough.

Such was the case with the first prize announced this year, on Monday last 6 October, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. It was awarded to John O’Keefe, 75, a British-American scientist, who will share half of the prize of 8 million kronor, or $1.1 million, with May-Britt Moser, 51 and her husband Edvard I. Moser, 52 who are Norwegians – for their discovery of an ‘an inner GPS in the brain,’ that makes navigation possible for virtually all creatures. They are credited with having ‘solved a problem that has occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries — how does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment,’ according to the news release from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, whose Nobel Committee selects and announces the laureates.

‘The positioning system in the brain that they discovered helps us know where we are, find our way from place to place and store the information for the next time.’ It is noteworthy that the work that led to this Nobel Prize was begun as far back as the late 1960s, when Dr O’Keefe began using sophisticated methods to study how the brain controls behaviour, using rats. He was able to identify nerve cells or neurones in a region of the brain called the hippocampus that were always activated when a rat was at a certain location. He called them ‘place cells’ and they make up the first part of ‘positioning system’ in the brain. In 2005, the Mosers discovered a second crucial component of the brain’s positioning system, identifying another type of neurone which they called ‘grid cells’, in a region adjacent to the hippocampus, the entorhinal cortex.

As laymen we may well ask ‘what next?’ from this, but who knows that some day based on this work or a further refinement of it, an implant is devised that can be inserted in a robot’s ‘head’ to help it guide the blind or the elderly…

Among the big challenges that are being addressed in basic science are the ‘theory of everything’ in physics – a theory that will possibly explain why the universe exists at all, and that includes us! – and the workings of the brain in biology. There has been a literal explosion of interest and of studies focusing on the brain, with President Obama launching a ‘Brain Project’ for which dedicated funding has been earmarked, and which ropes in scientists in multiple disciplines from around the world to research the exhilarating field of brain science, ‘neuroscience.’

One main reason for this is the availability of techniques such as functional neuroimaging of fMRI – almost everybody knows about MRI scan these days, such words having become part of common parlance – that allows the scientists to ‘look’ at what is happening inside the brain in real time when an activity is taking place, such as when someone is thinking, dreaming or meditating.

In fact, as far as meditation is concerned, a number of studies have already shown its beneficial effect in a number of conditions. It acts by ‘calming’ the mind, creating a pattern of brain waves associated with less activity in the brain, which allows it to become more focused. Tibetan monks who practice ‘mindfulness meditation’ have been the particular subjects of such kinds of studies.

There are even studies that have shown a correlation between meditation and changes that favour longevity in the tips of chromosomes (which carry genetic material in the cells of the body) called the telomeres. Besides, meditation combined with yoga has been shown in scientifically validated studies to reduce blood pressure, asthmatic attacks and improve some other medical conditions. It goes without saying that these techniques do not replace but complement medical treatment, and must be carried out under medical advice and supervision.

There is much more going on in neuroscience, probing synaesthesia for example. Literally, it means ‘union of senses,’ a phenomenon whereby one sensory experience involuntarily prompts another. As we all know, there are five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. A not infrequent combination is that of sight and hearing: in fact, there are several people known who associate colour with the sound of music.

In 1987, MRI scans established showed that the ‘visual activity’ part of the brain lit up when participants listened to music; the association was thus real and not simply invented by the subject. Many years ago I read about a blind person in South India who could paint landscapes in different colours based on descriptions given by his wife who was a lecturer in a college; he even went on to hold an exhibition.

As an article on the subject noted some time ago, ‘these are not metaphorical or whimsical imaginings; for synaesthetes, these intertwined sensations are a fact of life, automatic and everyday, unchanging and very real. For me, Monday is red in the same way that grass is green.’ Just like, for some, a given colour is associated with a smell. So next time someone tells you that s/he smells a rainbow, don’t be cynical. Look out for the rainbow instead…

Even though we will not be around to be witness to all the wonderful discoveries that science makes, it is comforting to know that there are human beings who devote their lives to the pursuit of expanding the horizon of knowledge that finally benefits their fellow human beings. It gives hope for the future, despite all the black spots that are plaguing the world.

* Published in print edition on 10 October 2014

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