The human brain — a spongy, 1.5 kilogramme mass of tissue — is the most complex living structure in the universe that enables humans to achieve so much.
Its chaotic networks of billions of electrically pulsating neurons in our skulls have perplexed scientists for centuries.
The brain’s capacity can store more information than the most advanced computer and create a network of connections that far exceeds any social network.
In the last 10 years, through neuroscience, our understanding of this mysterious organ has exploded.
Studying the mechanisms of the mind, roots of behaviour, cause of disease and capacity to grow and change throughout one’s life opens a window into what makes us human.
Prodigious advances in diagnostic and molecular techniques have laid bare some of the brain’s complexity, and scientists are just beginning to parse how these revelations translate into everyday behaviour, let alone disease.
According to Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Center for Neuroscience Services and Research (P3Neuro) director Professor Datuk Dr Jafri Malin Abdullah, neuroscience — the scientific study of the brain and nervous system —involves multidisciplinary sciences concerned with the study of the structure and function of the nervous system.
“Neuroscience research is one of the great frontiers of scientific research. It leads to an understanding of our own thinking and behaviour.
“Neuroscientists routinely draw on the fields of psychology, biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics and computer science in their work. And that’s one reason neuroscience is such an interesting and challenging field of study,”he said.
Dr Jafri Malin is among the pioneers who introduced and developed the field of clinical and experimental neuroscience in Malaysia and in expanding it through the Academy of Sciences Malaysia.
BRAIN BEE CHALLENGE
Last year, SMK Seri Bintang Utara, Kuala Lumpur student Elwin Raj did Malaysia proud when he secured third place in the International Brain Bee Championship (IBBC) 2017 at Washington, D.C. in the United States. He won US$1,000 (RM3,936) along with an opportunity to undergo industrial training in the field of neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
Organised by the American Psychology Association, IBBC is geared towards motivating students aged between 13 and 19 to study the brain, and inspire them to pursue a career in basic and clinical neuroscience.
Elwin was the champion of the Malaysian Brain Bee Challenge (MBBC), the neuroscience national level competition that took place at the Health Campus, USM, Kubang Kerian before he represented the country at the international level.
MBBC encourages students nationwide to be familiar with basic neuroscience concepts and terminology as well as have an understanding of how scientists learn about the brain.
At IBBC, students are tested on knowledge of the human brain, covering subjects such as activity, emotion, memory, sleep, sight, hearing, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, addiction and brain research.
The competition involves oral tests, neuroanatomy laboratory examinations using actual human brain, neurohistology examinations and component diagnosis of patients.
Founded in 1998 by Dr Norbert Myslinski from Maryland University, IBBC was created in response to the growing incidence rates of neurological diseases and the need to motivate young men and women to learn about the human brain.
Myslinski said the world needs future clinicians and researchers to treat and find cures for more than 1,000 neurological and psychological disorders. The competition hopes to inspire youth to join careers in research and clinical brain sciences.
So why is neuroscience ever more important today than ever before to fuel the next generation of top scientists, doctors and even future entrepreneurs?
Studying neuroscience is not only important to understand normal human behaviour.
In an age when neural networks are applied to advance technology and brain-computer interfaces are being introduced to the market, the compelling subject of the human brain takes centre stage. Something that combines neuroscience and technology is going to be really important to accelerate the pace of human development in the future.
Dr Jafri Malin said: “There are numerous fields that incorporate neuroscience such as biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, physics and psychology.
“The collaboration between artificial intelligence (AI) and neuroscience can produce an understanding of the mechanisms in the brain that generate human cognition.”
AI, software and web hosting involve computational neuroscience, an interdisciplinary science that links the diverse fields of neuroscience, computer science, physics and applied mathematics together. It serves as the primary theoretical method for investigating the function and mechanism of the nervous system.
“The fifth revolution, which is already around the corner, is in neuroscience. As it unfolds, we can expect technology including artificial intelligence to become more superior and sophisticated in every sense. To enhance creativity, there is a need for more development, discovery and exposure for Malaysians.”
He added that the number of neuroscientists in Malaysia, although small in comparison with other countries, has increased positively.
“According to the 2015 Unesco Institute of Statistics data, we had six scientists per 1,000 workforce.In 2016, the number has increased to 14 scientists per 1,000 workforce.
“With so much at stake, the need for the field of neuroscience and AI to come together
is now more important than ever before,”
said Dr Jafri Malin, who was responsible for establishing the neurosurgery and some neurological components at the School of Medical Sciences, USM as well as at the Hospital USM.
He is also dedicated to promoting knowledge about and interest in neuroscience to Malaysian students through various programmes. This is also to address the deficit of science students in the higher education pipeline.
In 2016, he was appointed adviser of the International Youth Neuroscience Association (IYNA) based at the University of Maryland.
“It was through the contribution in establishing the first Neuroscience Club at the primary school level in SK Kubang Kerian 3 in Kelantan and at the secondary school level in SM Sains Tengku Muhammad Faris Petra more than seven years ago, as well as conducting various activities focused on neuroscience, which has made this appointment possible.”
Recently, IYNA selected Malay College Kuala Kangsar as the Malaysian Chapter representative for the 18 neuroscience clubs in Malaysia to coordinate their activities.
VACATION RESEARCH PROGRAMME
Dr Jafri Malin said P3Neuro of USM has been running the Vacation Research Programme (VRP) for secondary school students for the last six years.
The first of its kind in Southeast Asia, P3Neuro does translational and transdiciplinary research and services related to neuroscience. It handles Combined Specialist Clinics Neuroscience Functional And Epilepsy, Combined Clinical Neurology (MAPPING), Combined Clinic Psychology-Neuroscience, and Sound, Movement, Arts And Rehab Therapy Clinic. It also supervises undergraduate neuroscience students on industrial attachment from overseas universities such as Keele University and postgraduate research in the same field.
VRP is one of its programmes targeting pre-university students in an effort to promote interest in brain research among secondary school students,
Originally an idea of Dr Jafri Malin, VRP was introduced in 2012 for Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) students to inculcate the love for neuroscience in particular and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in general for those who are keen to pursue careers as scientists.
“An important goal of VRP is to share what we are doing in our laboratories and encourage these bright young minds to consider a career in brain research.
“Reaching out to students in this way sends a strong message about the importance of neuroscience research. I cannot think of a better way to encourage students to consider science as a study option.
“Young generations, who take up fundamental and applied sciences as their basic degree and pursue postgraduate studies, will be assured of job security, promotion and reward at the end of the road.”
By providing early exposure to conduct research in the areas of STEM, it allows youth to explore and learn through hands-on activities. Programme participants are supervised and guided by scientists at P3Neuro together with undergraduate students and staff from other schools at USM.
During the course of six to nine weeks, these students are exposed to not only artificial intelligence, software and web hosting but also neurobiology and electrophysiology.
“Neurobiology is a branch of biology that focuses on the structure and function of the nervous system in animals and humans.
“Meanwhile, electrophysiology is the study of the electrical properties and activity of brain cells. In neuroscience, it includes measurements of the electrical activity of neurons and, particularly, action potential activity. It is one way to understand quantitatively and qualitatively the interactions of the many cell types within the brain and how their dysfunction may lead to pathology,” added Dr Jafri Malin.
During the programme, students are placed at different schools of the university. “When they undergo activities related to computational neuroscience, they will be placed at the School of Science Computer, for example.”
At P3Neuro and School of Medical Sciences, students will be exposed to, for instance, neurophysiology, neuroimaging and neuropsychology.
“Our goal is to teach basic concepts of neuroscience through hands-on activities, introduce students to neuroscience research, provide them with positive role models and highlight the importance of understanding brain function.”
The aim to encourage students to continue their tertiary education in the field of STEM has shown positive results, Dr Jafri Malin said, with students from the first few intakes of the programme taking up courses related to the science field.
“The VRP experience motivated them to pursue a career in medicine and neuroscience. The first student who participated in VRP, Lee Poh Nuan, from SMJK Chung Hwa, Kelantan, is reading medicine. Others have won scholarships to study neuroscience and biology science overseas.
“Students can apply for the programme which is advertised through the Education Ministry or via Dr Ihsan Ismail, a representative of the National STEM Center.
“Once they have completed their SPM or STPM exams, they can apply via email. After the first screening, we select potential candidates for an interview. We pick shortlisted candidates based on their interests, achievements and their trial examination results.
“Thirteen students have been selected to join the programme so far. In its seventh edition this year, the programme has increased its selection to five student participants.
“By getting more students involved, we can inspire them to become neuroscientists and perhaps cure brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“Who knows, perhaps one day, a Malaysian can shed light on some of the most enduring mysteries in neuroscience, such as the nature of creativity, dreams and even consciousness.”
In the long run, Dr Jafri Malin hopes that public and private universities in the country will host VRPs to include primary and lower secondary schools as well. For details, email firstname.lastname@example.org