Sunday, October 29, 2017

Opportunity to advance East-West neuroscience collaborations

By Abdul Qadir Qureshi
(Pakistan News & Features Services)

Neuroscience research investigating the brain and how this ‘supercomputer’ controls every aspect of our body and behaviour, needs to be actively promoted and investigated in Pakistan and The Science Bridge initiative offers opportunities for local neuroscientists to participate in global efforts. 

This was the discussion at the 3rd Annual Neuroscience Meeting themed Building Bridges through Neuroscience organised by the Aga Khan University and the Pakistan Society of Basic and Applied Neurosciences in collaboration with The Science Bridge initiative, the International Brain Research Organization, the Advance Educational Institute and Research Centre, and the Canada Pakistan Research and Development Council. 

Prof Mazahir T Hasan of the Achucarro Basque Center for Neuroscience described how The Science Bridge’s mission is to “promote sustainable scientific collaboration between cultures and nations to understand the working principle of the brain, a global effort to find treatments and, possibly, cures for different neurological and psychiatric conditions.” 

He spoke about a new and innovative concept, the Twin Institutes, that aims to link research institutes together, one in a Western country and another one in an Eastern country, around common goals in basic and applied neuroscience. 

“The importance of neuroscience research cannot be overemphasized,” Prof Syed Ather Enam of the Aga Khan University remarked. “There are more than 1,000 disorders of the brain and nervous system that need to be managed and more than 50 percent of all diseases affect the nervous system.” 

In 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) had estimated that neurological disorders affect up to one billion people worldwide, irrespective of age, sex, education or income. 

During the meeting, the speakers discussed advances in basic understanding of the brain. In one example, Prof. Naweed Syed of the University of Calgary spoke about progress in understanding the communications between a living organism's brain cells and a computer chip. It raises the possibility of neurochip implants that could activate artificial limbs, help restore sight or speech after a stroke, or repair nerve cells in a wide range of brain disorders, from Parkinson’s disease to Alzheimer’s. 

In another discussion, Prof Joshua R Sanes from the Center for Brain Science, Harvard University, explained how the eye’s retina as complex as any other part of the brain but with several features that facilitate analysis can be used to understand the formation of synapses, the junction between two nerve cells. 

The experts at the conference also discussed the status of neuroscience in Pakistan and how to proceed further. They agreed that there is a need for public awareness about the importance of research in understanding basic brain functions and neurological and psychiatric conditions in ‘local’ South Asian populations. 

With collective international efforts and East-West collaborations, the experts expressed a hope that neuroscientists will eventually find innovative ways to treat and cure many neurological diseases.

AKU launch scholarship programme

By Abdul Qadir Qureshi
(Pakistan News & Features Services)

 A total of 45 students from across Pakistan have come together to attend the Aga Khan University’s Challenge Scholarship Programme that aims to prepare young people for higher education.

The students, a mix of young women and men, come from 24 cities and towns across Pakistan, from Parachinar and Bhimber in the north all the way to Dera Ghazi Khan and Badin in the south. 

The Challenge Programme, a two-week residential ‘boot’ camp, gave students the opportunity to be coached by well-known professionals and academics; conducted community research, explored complex topics from critical thinking to gender and ethics while gaining valuable life skills including first aid training. 

They took part in sports and went through formal coaching for swimming; they also toured Karachi. A field trip to Rehri Goth, an old fishing village on the outskirts of Karachi exposed students to how community research can help understand lifestyles and advocate for solutions to local problems. 

Amtul Wadood from Chenab Nagar regarded the field trip as something that left a big impact on her. “Seeing people living in the conditions they were in (Rehri Goth) encouraged us to do something for them. It inspired me to try and make a difference in the world,” she said. 

Waseem Jamil, who came all the way from Parachinar, enjoyed the critical thinking seminar the most “because they encouraged you to ask questions, which I had never experienced before,” Nouman Tariq, from Bhimber, agrees: “the best part is that the sessions are interactive. We are having a dialogue and not just listening silently.” 

Other sessions during the programme included career guidance by academics and professionals, who while speaking about their own life experiences, inspired students to pursue their goals actively. 

One of the highlights of the programme was a dialogue with Pakistan’s first Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who has directed acclaimed documentaries such as ‘Saving Face’ and ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness’. 

She spoke to the participants about her own experiences and how she pursued a career as a filmmaker and journalist. She told them to never be discouraged by setbacks, and that hurdles in life were meant to be overcome. 

The temperamental celebrity urged students to pursue their life goals through hard work, determination and strong ethics. She also praised the students and told them that they were the future of Pakistan. 

For many of the students, this has been a life-changing experience. It has given their confidence a great boost. 

This was certainly the case for Inam Ullah from Dera Ghazi Khan, who felt that he has become a new person after this experience. “Back at home my principal would always call me on stage to speak, but I used to shy away. After this experience I will go back home and tell my principal that I want to go speak on stage,” he excitedly said.