Biomedical Engineer From India solves the mystery of Memory degradation with age

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Univerity of California, Berkeley logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a kid growing up in Ahmedabad, Vikram Rao loved spending time with his grandfather, professor Annaswami Ranganath Rao-one of India‘s known mathematicians who pioneered the idea of maths labs in schools across India. It was Rao senior’s idea to create three-dimensional models that would make learning complex mathematical theories fun for kids. The labs have been started in hundreds of schools across the country. And those early years in the company of a bright mind inculcated in the grandson a deep love for academics and research.

It is no wonder then that Vikram is now part of an international team at the University of California, Berkeley that finally found an answer to one of the most commonly asked questions: Why does the ability to remember things decline as we grow older?

Twenty-eight-year-old Vikram is one of the co-authors of a study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley which links poor sleep, memory loss and brain deterioration with increasing age.

After finishing his schooling from Ahmedabad, he pursued his bachelor’s degree in engineering from UV Patel College of Engineering, Mehsana, specializing in biomedical and instrumentation engineering. “I was always interested in sleep research. I graduated with a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Texas, Arlington and did my thesis in the field of ‘sleep apnea‘ to assess the influence of factors like hypoxia, hypercapnia and inspiratory efforts on sympathoexcitation during simulated sleep apnea,” Vikram says.

In layman’s words, it means assessing various physiological pathways that play a major role during sleep apnea-a sleep disorder characterized by abnormal pauses in breathing during sleep.

The study by UC Berkeley was published last month in the journal Nature Neuroscience. “What we discovered is a dysfunctional neurological pathway that helps explain the relationship between brain deterioration (grey matter atrophy), sleep disruption (slow wave activity) and memory loss (episodic memory) as we get older,” explains Vikram. “We found that slow brain waves generated during the deep sleep we typically experience in youth play a key role in transporting memories from the hippocampus – which provides short-term storage for memories – to the prefrontal cortex’s longer term ‘hard drive’. However, in older adults, these memories may be getting stuck in the hippocampus due to poor quality of deep ‘slow wave’ sleep, and are overwritten by new memories,” adds Vikram, who conducted the brain imaging analysis during the study and is the manager of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at UC where the research was conducted.

Vikram has been on this study for almost two years and the research was ‘no less than solving a murder mystery’. “Working with some of the best scientists of the world was extremely exciting.”

He adds that growing up in a family of academicians was exciting and terrifying at the same time. “Apart from a mathematician grandfather, my father is a retired chemistry professor and mother a computer teacher. Living among such brilliant people, I used to think I would have some pretty large shoes to fill. And that terrified me at first. But my family was extremely supportive and there was never any pressure to get into the field I am in now.”

Being away from Gujarat for nearly seven years now, there are some things that Vikram thoroughly misses: “The food, Uttarayan and the roadside tea stalls.”

There are, however, some things that worry Vikram. “Gujarat has developed tremendously. But the research fundings do not match up to other nations. Moreover, the sleep pattern of today’s youth is alarming. They don’t realize the importance of sleep in healthy living,” Vikram says.

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