“I identify more as an explorer. The age of exploration of the Earth, in terms of geography, is done. The age of exploration of the universe is still beyond our reach in terms of direct exploration. But, we can explore the brain. I think I am a brain explorer,” said Dr. Sunil Gandhi, our Spotlight Neuroscientist of the Month of April 2019, during our luncheon. Dr. Gandhi is an associate professor in Neurobiology and Behavior in the School of Biological Sciences at UCI. Throughout the spotlight events, Dr. Gandhi was very approachable and encouraging. His fascination with neuroscience arose when he first saw the different neural circuits laid out in a book about the human brain. Dr. Gandhi’s interest in neuroscience further grew when he realized that the brain was a vault of secrets that neuroscientists have been trying to crack open for all of human history, from the ancient philosophers to the modern neuroscientists. Instead of going on vacations, he would attend the APA meetings with his mom who was a child psychiatrist – so neuroscience has always been, in many ways, embedded in his genes. Dr. Gandhi likes that the field of neuroscience is diverse and how many different fields play a major role in forming it into the unique science that it is. He was able to combine his knowledge of computer science, which he had originally intended to go into, with his current research. Not only did we hear Dr. Gandhi’s life and research experiences during our luncheon, but we also got to learn from him at his colloquium.
In the expansive field that is neuroscience, it is difficult to decide what it is you want to devote your years of academia to. Do you want to find a solution for Alzheimer’s? Cure addiction? Lend a hand in uncovering the underpinnings of depression? Dr. Gandhi’s research has approached all of these questions. Discoveries in neuroscience do not exist in a vacuum, therefore research on one topic most likely will lead to an interdisciplinary effort. The way to get started, he explains, is to begin by asking yourself what the biggest questions in science are. Dr. Gandhi’s question just happened to be one that many scientists believed to be impossible: Is the brain capable of accepting new neurons?
“To me this was an interesting question; however, when I asked my advisor about it he told me it was not possible.”
The fact that people were so quick to dismiss his idea gave him the drive to pursue it in spite of everyone’s doubts. As Dr. Ghandi took us down memory lane, he spoke about the fact that he was curious to find an answer to a question that in the mind of many scientists seemed to be unreasonable at that time, but as he said he never gave up. Thus, his lab focuses on a previously unheard of method of GABA cell transplantation. Through his research, his work exists at the frontier of neuroscience as his lab implements a method that many scientists did not think would be feasible. Listening to his experience of pursuing a passion in the face of naysayers and how he stands for what he believes in was inspiring to us all – not only as budding neuroscientists, but as young scholars getting ready to take on the world.
The primary goal of Dr. Gandhi’s lab is to understand the neural circuitry regulating plasticity of the visual cortex. To get a better grasp of the mechanisms involved in plasticity of the visual cortex, we read one of Dr. Gandhi’s journal article and discussed the role and impact of inhibitory neurons in adult visual cortex of visually impaired mice. The purpose of the article is to restore normal vision by adding an extra critical period and rewiring the damaged circuits involved in vision. A behavioral test, such as the Morris water maze or visual water task, was performed to see the effect of adding inhibitory neurons into the visual cortex, which opens another critical period. We learned that introducing these inhibitory neurons into the visual cortex, through transplantation, of mice deprived of binocular vision indeed creates a second critical period, rescuing vision in these mice. Dr. Gandhi is also interested in developing novel methods to better study the neural circuitry of the visual cortex. To further comprehend the concept of brain computer interface (BCI), which is indirectly related to his research, Dr. Gandhi provided us an article on BCI’s impact on Locked-in syndrome patients, who are paralyzed. The purpose of this article is to assess the performance of patients who rely on neural activity to spell words, for example. We learned that paralyzed (Locked-in syndrome) patients are able to communicate through using neural activity received by the implanted electrodes in the brain that are calculated by the computer. This phenomenon relates to imaging methods that Dr. Gandhi use in his lab.
We first took some time to introduce ourselves to Dr. Gandhi as well as get to know him and learn more about his research as well as his involvement outside of the lab. Dr. Gandhi is very proud of his research assistants in his lab. He said that many of them have helped to publish research that will have significance in the neuroscience field. First, we met with one research assistant who showed us the mapping of the brain of the rats who had their eyes sutured in order to see the significance of temporary blindness during critical periods of development. The research assistant said that they need to be very careful to not alarm the rats. If they do the sutures correctly, the rats do not notice; but if they do them wrong, the rats may try to scratch them off. We also met another research assistant who is pursuing his MD/PhD and he talked to us about wanting to do both so that he would have options to help people as well as pursue research. We were also shown various videos regarding their work on the different images they have captured during their brain scans.
Next, Dr. Gandhi showed us the room where he and his team have a machine that can map the physical brain onto a computer. With special treatment of the brain, they are able to make it appear translucent, which helps for tracking processes of the many neurons, axons, dendrites, and their pathways. They can also make parts of the brain with different colors on the computer to further analyze these processes and pathways. He wants to organize a program known as Neuroscholars inspired by the Berkeley Scholars program, which would connect students interested in neuroscience to a large research program of other students, faculty, and research labs. He wants to create more opportunities for students to get involved because he wants to make it less of a field of “who you know” and more about giving everyone a chance. This is especially important because mapping the brain will be a very valuable and marketable skill to graduate schools and employers. While this is great, he said that the most difficult part of the program so far is the fact that he has to turn down many of the hundreds of students who are interested, simply due to the fact that program is still in its pilot phase. He hopes that in the next few years, the program will expand and be able to accommodate more o people. However, the interest in both Neuroscholars and Nu Rho Psi is evidence that there is an intense excitement amongst undergraduates about neuroscience, and that is something that inspires both Dr. Gandhi and us members of Nu Rho Psi. It is encouraging to see a professor and neuroscientist with a passion for not only the field but also for helping the next generation get involved as well.
At the end of our journey with our Spotlight Neuroscientist, Dr. Gandhi advised us to “be confident” because we are already “on the right path” by attending an established university and being active members of Nu Rho Psi. Being able to hear about his experiences and what helped him pave the way towards his current successes has deeply impacted many of us, especially those of us unsure about what roads to take in the near future.