In Haryana, the making of an Indian brain template

The archetype will be constructed from the scans of 150 Indians

March 30, 2018 10:50 pm | Updated March 31, 2018 08:19 am IST - Manesar

New map:  Dr. Pravat Mandal, centre, during a MRI scan at  the National Brain Research Centre.

New map: Dr. Pravat Mandal, centre, during a MRI scan at the National Brain Research Centre.

At the National Brain Research Centre (NBRC) here, a group of scientists is preparing a one-of-its-kind database of brain images that, when compiled together, could result in a so-called Indian Brain Template (IBT).

This archetype, to be constructed from a composite of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans from 150 adult Indians, will likely include at least one person from every State and Union Territory, and serve as a guide to neuroscientists and surgeons, who have so far based their knowledge of intricate brain anatomy on Caucasian models.

Significant variations

Over the years, scientists from across the world have been pointing out that there are significant variations in the location of key brain regions and the density of neurons in various brain areas between racial types.

Drawing from this, several countries, including China, South Korea and Canada, have brain templates of their population and it is time, say researchers, that India had one of its own, too.

“There are variations in the size, volume and location of certain brain regions in Indian populations compared to, say, the Canadians,” said Pravat Mandal, a neuroscientist and project leader at the National Brain Research Centre here.

A tough job

Of the 150 healthy participants that they hope to recruit over the year, “about 40%,” according to Dr. Mandal’s estimates, are expected to be scanned at the NBRC in the next two months.

“It’s a tough job recruiting and cajoling participants to spend 10 minutes inside an MRI scanner, which is about the time required for a detailed scan,” he added.

By way of comparison, China’s template rests on a bank of about 1,000 volunteers and the Canadian template (called the Montreal Neurological Institute template and a key reference point in the field) is built on about 300 healthy volunteers.

The IBT is funded by the Department of Science and Technology. While other research groups in India have attempted similar databases, none have aspired to the geographical and chronological spread of participants envisaged by Professor Mandal’s initiative.

Naren Rao, a neuropsychiatrist at the Bengaluru-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), and his colleagues had embarked on building an IBT. They, however, had only 27 recruits, all from Aurangabad and this was, said Dr. Rao, “due to logistical challenges.”

In that study of 17 men and 10 women — all certified as mentally fit by a neuropsychiatrist — it emerged that Indian brains “significantly differed” in length and width, but not in their height, from Caucasian brains, according to a 2016 report in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging , a peer-reviewed journal. “They were smaller but that doesn’t mean Indians have lesser intelligence,” Dr. Rao clarified to The Hindu in a phone conversation.

While the comparison of brain sizes among people of various ethnicities was an obsession of the 19th century physiology, contemporary researchers are keener on variations in the innards of the brain and whether it could hold clues to neuropsychiatric diseases.

Dr. Mandal, who has completed a few scans in the course of the IBT project, said that while it’s early to say if there’s anything typical about Indian brains, a key factor that he will be looking out for is the quantity of a molecule called glutathione, an antioxidant known to help repair cell damage. Dr. Mandal avers that reduced glutathione concentrations in the parietal cortical region — near the back of the brain near where the skull bulges — may help predict Alzheimer’s disease.

“We will be looking at glutathione concentrations and how they vary with age in the people we study,” he added. The other outstanding question, said Dr. Rao, would be to establish if the brain variation within Indians, given the country’s complex history of migrations, was greater than among other countries.

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