Sunday, November 6, 2016

Civil society leaders share strategies towards more peaceful Pakistan

By Abdul Qadir Qureshi 
(Pakistan News & Features Services) 

The experts in the field of medicine, business, the arts, and social policy highlighted a range of strategies to build peace and stability in Pakistan on the final day of the National Health Sciences Research Symposium, the Aga Khan University’s annual event on November 6. 

Neuroscience researchers and clinicians shared insights on how the mind and brain can contribute to, or take away from, individual and social peace while people from the arts and humanities narrated their efforts to introduce positive change in society and the process of overcoming challenges in their private and public lives. 

Creative arts play a vital role in human development, from rehabilitative treatments for post traumatic stress disorder after violent incidents to programmes to treat mental illnesses noted Dr Saad Shafqat, Professor of Neurology at AKU while moderating the session on Art, Music, Literature and the Mind. 

Actor and social worker Nadia Jamil described the performing arts as being one of the most empowering tools for social change. She explained how many societies were able to create powerful narratives that enabled them to unite their people and progress. 

“I wish more Muslim societies picked up the pen rather than the sword in order to change the world around us. Art helps us connect with other people’s experiences and nurtures empathy. It makes us remember what came before us and enables us to spread positive messages for social good,” she added. 

Nigeria-based psychiatrist Olayinka Omigbodun agreed about the idea of art for change. Television and theatre plays can be used to confront long standing traditions and stigmas in society and noted that the Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, is beginning to play an important role in shaping perceptions about mental health. 

Jamal Shah, actor and director, while also talking about art as a vital outlet for society, spoke about how on an individual level each person faced inherent loneliness. Only by embarking on a creative journey can one fill this void and as one becomes self-aware the creativity that results can have an impact on the community and the world around them. 

In another session on Mindfulness, Spirituality and the Human Condition, mental health experts discussed how to heal wounds in society. David Arthur, Dean of the School of Nursing and Midwifery at AKU, spoke of the soothing impact that spirituality can have on the soul. 

Dr Arthur mentioned that techniques such as mindfulness, the practice of making oneself aware of the present instead of being worried about the past and the future, can be very beneficial. 

“Don’t always be in a hurry. Be interested in every interaction and truly live in the moment. When you do this you’ll notice that everything you do is more enriching. We should all focus on experiencing the moment,” he observed. 

Consultant psychiatrist Sarah Eager, from the UK, agreed with Dr Arthur and mentioned the negative influence of stress in society on our individual well being. 

“We should try to return to the silence and peace prior to the stressful moment. People also tend to be very critical of themselves and others which is very harmful to society. Instead we should focus on being compassionate to ourselves and each other,” she remarked. 

In the session on Psychopathology of Violence and Terrorism, Dr Murad Khan, Professor of Psychiatry at AKU and moderator of the session, noted that violent incidents and terrorist attacks in Pakistan has led to many people being exposed to trauma and many families having to cope with the consequences of violence with little recourse to help. 

Social activist Jibran Nasir noted that Pakistani society, over time, has become more violent and intolerant. Conflicts over political ideology, religious doctrine and regional separatism have spilled over into public space with the result that people have become increasingly concerned about their own safety and more indifferent to the plight of others. 

He stressed the importance of speaking out against injustice and of continuing the mission of those who had been silenced by violence. When asked whether everyone should pursue political change through activism, he replied: 

“Be a good citizen first by paying your taxes and by abiding by the law. There is room for everyone to contribute to society but remember that society needs all kinds of people to prosper. Everyone shouldn’t aspire to becoming a political activist but they should do as much as they can to improve what is around them.” 

At the conclusion of the conference, Dr Ayesha Mian, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at AKU said: “We’ve brought together experts from around the world to share their scientific and medical expertise. Sessions throughout the conference have led to new ideas and much excitement about the field of neuroscience which is important not only to every person’s health but has insights that can impact society as a whole.”

Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence set to help Pakistani doctors, neuroscience researchers and IT experts

By Abdul Qadir Qureshi
(Pakistan News & Features Services)

The application of revolutionary computer models to complex problems in neuroscience, the study of the mind, brain and nervous system, is making a range of scientific and medical breakthroughs possible, said experts at the National Health Sciences Research Symposium, the Aga Khan University’s annual event on November 5.

Computer simulations and algorithms have enabled researchers to emulate the complex electrochemistry of the brain. 

This has resulted in new insights into mental disorders such as epilepsy, which affects 2 million people in Pakistan, and a range of medical innovations that is enabling children, who were born deaf, to hear for the first time and soldiers, who lost arms and legs in war, to control robotic limbs with their minds. 

These were some of the discussions at the three-day conference, Mind and Brain: Neuroscience Today and Tomorrow, that saw specialists from around the world share scientific achievements and advances in treatment in neurology, neurosurgery and psychiatry. 

Speaking about the importance of neuroscience research, Dr Saad Shafqat, Professor of Neurology at AKU, said: “The human brain and its enigmatic product, the mind, are at the core of human identity, intelligence, character and personality. Together, their activity determines what it means to be human.” 

“Diseases of the brain and mind such as epilepsy, stroke, depression and schizophrenia are devastating as they alter the person as we know them. Just as studies in the 1990s on clot-busting drugs revolutionised stroke treatment, we hope the research and clinical insights shared today will lead to changes in treatment for mental, neurological and neurosurgical illnesses in Pakistan,” he added. 

Dr Ali Minai, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Systems at the University of Cinncinati, USA, a keynote speaker at the conference, spoke about how both the brain and the computer are complex systems that use electrical activity to process information. 

“Insights from the brain are already expanding the frontiers of medical and scientific knowledge. The future is even more promising as the creation of artificial intelligence or ‘learning computers’ can be used to augment our bodies for a wide variety of uses from entertainment to education and even applications related to security,” he observed. 

Knowledge sharing through workshops at the conference enabled medical researchers and practitioners to share the latest advances in the treatment of diseases and to discuss steps that government and civil society can take to make Pakistan a more accepting society for those suffering from neurological and psychiatric disorders. 

Dr Fowzia Siddiqui, a leading epilepsy researcher based at AKU, spoke out about the centuries-old myth about epilepsy, still widely believed in Pakistan, that epileptics are ‘possessed’ by supernatural forces and so to be shunned or feared. 

She pointed out that research has shown that only 2 out of 100 people in rural areas and less than 3 out of 10 epileptics in urban settlements are taking any medicine to control their disorder. Alarmingly, international studies estimate that 80 per cent of epileptics living in developing countries still remain untreated. 

“Once the family decides that epilepsy is not an illness, they either ignore the problem or take patients to quacks or faith healers. This is unfortunate as we know that 70 per cent of epilepsy cases are well-controlled with medication. Encouragingly, the presence of new devices and surgical techniques promise an even better future for many more epileptics,” she reckoned. 

Reinforcing the message, Dr Ayesha Mian, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at AKU, said: “Patients suffering from mental illnesses are often stereotyped as being violent, lazy or ‘possessed’. We need to stop being afraid of the symptoms and effects of mental illness and instead focus on raising awareness about the wide range of therapies and treatments available for common psychiatric disorders.” 

Professor Olayinka Omigbodun, a leading psychiatrist from Nigeria, agreed and suggested that awareness has to be complemented by advocacy, sharing her experiences of overcoming obstacles in promoting the need for improved mental health services for children. 

The conference was preceded by a day of workshops in which experts from the UK, US, Lebanon, Tunisia, Austria, Nigeria, Spain and Pakistan shared their expertise in neurosurgery, psychiatry and neurology with over 500 people in attendance.

PSQCA, NED University enter into agreement

By Abdul Qadir Qureshi
(Pakistan News & Features Services)

The Pakistan Standard Quality Control Authority (PSQCA) and the NED University of Engineering and Technology, Karachi, have entered into an agreement which will provide for creating an awareness and education programme on standardization. 

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in this regard was signed between the Director General of the PSQCA M. Khalid Siddiq, and the Vice-Chancellor of the NED University, Prof Dr M Afzal Haque. 

Under the agreement both the PSQCA and the NED University will collaborate with each other in creating an awareness and education programme on standardization, standards and their role in profession and academia at Karachi.