Altruism in Science is at its zenith today. Scientists, with their innovative techniques, out of the box thinking and exciting discoveries are striving to make the world a better place. Nowhere is this sentiment more apparent than in the world of teenaged science prodigies. Driven by a burning passion to make a difference to the world at large, these teen scientists are increasingly making their presence felt on the global science forum.
One such teen scientist to have generated a considerable buzz in science circles is Indian-American student Indrani Das. The seventeen year old Indrani has discovered a way to stem the death of brain cells in the aftermath of brain injury or due to debilitating brain diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other major issues that affect brain cognition. Her discovery spells hope for the millions of elderly people affected by degenerative brain conditions or people who undergo brain trauma from injury.
Indrani’s brain research has won her the oldest and most prestigious science and math high school competition in the US- the Regeneron Science Talent Search award for high school students. Indrani has bagged the top prize- a whopping $250,000, to be put to good use in furthering her research.
The Science Talent Search Award is fondly called the ‘Junior Nobel Prize’ and not without reason- twelve previous winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize! Westinghouse was the original sponsor since 1942, Intel took it up from 1998 till last year and then Regeneron took over sponsorship.
The research works on the premise that when Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke or a traumatic injury affects the brain, the neurons- the building blocks of the brain- suffer severe shock. A condition called astrogliosis sets in wherein cells called astrocytes, whose actual job is to support, protect and nurture the neurons, react to injury or disease and start behaving weirdly.
These astrocytes grow, divide and proliferate to such an extent that it creates an excess of these cells in the brain. At the same time, they reduce their uptake of Glutamate- a nutrient vital to brain health. Excess of astrocytes is toxic to the neurons, which ultimately causes death of the neurons. Continuous neuron death results in impaired brain functioning, motor abilities and so on.
“My work concentrates on getting these supporting cells to behave correctly,” says Indrani. “I found one way it can be made better, essentially by increasing one protein at the membrane of these supporting cells.”
“It pushes these supporting cells with treatment to create a chemical environment that is safer and cleaner for neurons to grow in”, she said.
Working on a laboratory model, Indrani proved that exosomes isolated from astrocytes and then transfected with microRNA-124a improved astrocyte uptake of glutamate and increased neuron survival.
Her school is equipped with a cell culture facility for her research.
Indrani, who is in the final year of high school at the Academy for Medical Science Technology in Hackensack, plans to use the prize money to up the level of her research, going on to research on lab rats and taking her discovery to its logical conclusion.