Department of Biological Sciences
Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, India
AsianScientist (Aug. 29, 2016) – How do the brain and body respond to stress? When in life are our stress responses shaped, and what are the mechanisms behind this phenomenon?
Neuroscientist Vidita Vaidya of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, India hopes to shed some light on these questions. Her research so far has shown, for example, that traumatic events in the early window of life—from birth to about the age of 12—leads to aging-related effects a few years later, where the hippocampus’ ability to generate new neurons is impaired.
These findings are timely, as we are just now learning how much our body’s response to stress in its many forms is closely linked to the development of non-communicable diseases down the road. And with the rising tide of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other lifestyle disorders threatening to engulf us, that information can help health agencies formulate a response.
Vaidya has received many accolades for her research efforts, including the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology in the medical science category in 2015.
Below, she tells Asian Scientist Magazine about how traumatic early life experiences affect the brain, challenges researching in the field of neuroscience, and what it takes to run a lab in Asia.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?
Studying how emotional neurocircuits are modulated by life experience and antidepressants.
- Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.
One of our research interests has been to identify the influence of early stress on the functioning of brain circuits that regulate emotional responses. By showing that early stress in rodent models leads to enhanced function of the serotonin receptor (5-HT2A) in the neocortex, we were able to identify the key role that the 5-HT2A receptor plays in the development of vulnerability to psychopathology.
This finding was striking as it happens without changing levels or expression of the 5-HT2A receptor. Rather, the experience of early life stress enhances 5-HT2A receptor function at both the physiological and behavioral level.
Further, we showed that if you block the 5-HT2A receptor during the period of early stress, you can prevent the emergence of anxiety behaviors and aberrant stress responses in adulthood.
We have also shown that if you simply stimulate the 5-HT2A receptor during early postnatal windows of development, it is sufficient to evoke anxiety behaviors in adulthood.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
We hope to gain a deeper mechanistic insight into how early life adverse experience shapes the development and function of key neurocircuits such as the medial prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, thus establishing a substrate for vulnerability to psychopathology.
We are also interested in asking questions on how early experiences could program resilience to psychiatric disorders.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
I would say my parents, who are clinician scientists. My father is a clinical pharmacologist and my mother is an endocrinologist. Dinner table conversations often revolved around science; their enthusiasm was contagious. I was also influenced by my uncle, who is a malaria parasitologist.
My interest in neuroscience and behavior started coalescing in my teenage years, when I was deeply impressed by Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall and what I learned about their work in popular science books and movies.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
I would say the biggest adversity has been the lack of infrastructural support for vertebrate research in my institute. When I started my lab, I was one of only two neurobiologists at the institute, and this meant we had to pretty much build everything from scratch.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
The focus today is so heavily on novelty, completely shifting from the importance of reproducibility. This is why we rarely see labs trying to reproduce published findings.
I think this is the biggest challenge the research community faces. We must emphasize the importance of reproducibility of results, so that novel findings are validated across the world by several groups. My concern is that if this does not become a priority, it will increase the risk of losing the confidence of the general public that funds the vast majority of basic science.
In my opinion, there has to be an emphasis on reproducibility and providing funds to ensure that novel findings can indeed be validated.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
I would have been a teacher. It is the profession that allows you to share moments of wonder with the younger generation.
- Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
I like to dance and that is my form of relaxation combined with exercise. I am also a voracious reader, so a hammock, a good book and the seaside is close to my idea of bliss.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
I think a key problem is that many children across the world do not have access to good nutrition, education and a safe environment. If there was a way to divert substantial government funding to these issues, it would be outstanding. Because if you fix these major issues, many others may start solving themselves.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
I would say that there is a great sense of satisfaction in being able to contribute to the scientific growth of Asia. This [growth] will help to buffer some of the challenges of doing science in environments where the critical mass is still lacking.
My only advice would be to retain a sense of humor in the face of challenges, and to look for solutions in unexpected places. Running a lab in many parts of Asia requires you to be an inveterate juggler, a multi-tasker and open to looking for creative resolutions to your problems.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Vidita Vaidya.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.