“Go with an objective mind:” Neuroscientist Dr. V.S. Ramachandran on his field and research

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Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, distinguished professor with the neurosciences program at UC San Diego and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, was one of the keynote speakers at the 10th Annual California Cognitive Science Conference held in Berkeley on April 28, 2018. In his keynote lecture, “Embodied Brain and Disembodied Mind,” he led the audience on an intriguing journey through a range of issues and disorders he has worked on in exploring mind-body interactions.

My first introduction to Dr. Ramachandran was through his work in mirror neurons and his simple and inexpensive solution to the very perplexing problem of pain associated with the phantom limb of an amputee. Dr. Ramachandran is also well-known in the world of autism research for his work on the potential role of mirror neurons in autism. He is undoubtedly an expert in the field of behavioral neurology and neurosciences and has received multiple awards and honors for his work, including the Henry Dale Medal, the Presidential Lecture Award from the American Academy of Neurology and two honorary doctorates.

It was both my honor and pleasure to sit down with Dr. Ramachandran for an interview after his talk.

The Daily Californian: What is fascinating you these days in the field of neuroscience? Can you tell us a little about it?

There are lots of things we find fascinating. Recently, we have been studying something called the calendar synesthesia. When you are asked to visualize a calendar in a year, you tend to visualize left top to bottom right — January, February, March, April, May, June, like a grid. It’s very vague and not specific. You don’t actually see it.

But about 2 percent of population actually sees the calendar, sees the lines demarcating it, sees the actual letters of the alphabet. Each month is systematically organized, often in a funny shape like a hula hoop circle instead of a square grid. Sometimes it is seen as a L-shape, with one side of the L moving backward. We’re studying this first of all to figure out if it’s real and they are not making it up. For example, for some of them, the lines that define the calendar behave like real lines on a sheet of paper, creating a visual illusion.

DC: You are famous for your work with phantom limb. Would you call it your biggest contribution?

This is always a tough question to answer. I think it’s the biggest contribution as far as the outside world is concerned. But I take pride in other little discoveries I’ve made, for example, on synesthesia or other small discoveries we take pride in because they are exercises in puzzle-solving.

DC: You really brought the study of mirror neurons into fame with its application in the phantom limb. Do you know if there are any other clinical applications where it is currently being pursued? Where else do you think it can be of immediate use?

There is some vague suggestion, including my own suggestion, that it can be involved in ASD, or autism spectrum disorder. But the evidence is very tenuous and it proposes a hypothesis. We found some preliminary evidence, and the evidence is very mixed. It may be (that) different kinds of ASD affect mirror neurons to different extents. This has not really been nailed down.

The other thing is OCD, or obsessive compulsive disorder. A person may desire to obsessively clean their hands to the point where it starts bleeding. It hurts and is mentally very agonizing. There is no known treatment or cure.

When they watch somebody else touch something like a chair, they start washing their own hands. It’s illogical, but the urge is nonetheless there. We think this is caused by something analogous to mirror neurons in the emotional empathy domain.

DC: What are some of the new and exciting areas in cognitive neuroscience that students should know of?

The work done on hippocampus, the place cells and grid cells in the hippocampus.

We now know from neurophysiological studies that the cells of the hippocampus are very precise, signaling the locations of the animal in space… It’s entirely involved in things like planning for the future, memories, episodic memories, also things like constructing a calendar in your mind.

All these things like higher cognitive functions are being mediated by these cells here. It’s a very promising area of inquiry if any young neuroscientist comes to my lab — that’s one area which is really important.

The next three questions are on autism.

DC: It is thought that ASD individuals lack empathy and are unable to construct metaphors. How does it explain those of us who have empathy and are comfortable with metaphors, including the autistics who are poets, musicians and artists? How does the mirror neuron theory fit in these cases? Also, our outward actions may not match our internal intent, as we don’t have full control over our body. (For example, we may feel distressed at someone else’s plight but we don’t/are unable to outwardly exhibit it.) Do you think the way empathy is tested needs to be different for autistics?

Much more research needs to be done on the behavior aspects of autism … Hundreds of imaging papers are all inconclusive, by and large. I think what we need to do is more systematic psychophysics studying these people — not psychophysiology but psychophysics — to understand their minds … in greater detail, and we might be able to devise treatments for them just as we have devised treatments for phantom pain and some of the other disturbances we’ve talked about. But it’s a long shot — first we need to understand why these symptoms occur, why there’s so much variation in ability of the patient to cope with the world — the social world — even though they are extremely talented in other ways.

There is no obvious way to fit this into mirror neuron theory. For example, imitationists claim that some autistic children are bad at imitation and that others are equally better at mimicry. So you can’t do a direct correlation yet.

DC: Regressive autistics like me usually meet developmental milestones, including spoken language, until around 18 months, then lose these skills. Why did the mirror neurons that worked until 18 months suddenly stop working? If they were turned off, can they be turned on again?

It’s not fundamentally different from other neurological disorders where a population of neurons start declining, and at a certain point they decline to reach a threshold where they can’t function optimally with the timing, and then they stop working even though they were working earlier. Even (in) Parkinson’s disease for example, dopamine neurons working optimally can tolerate about 90 percent loss. At 80 percent, you reach the threshold when the patient starts developing all the symptoms. So to me, it’s not that mysterious, but still there are unanswered questions.

These are all still very, very good, very clear and important questions from the onset.

DC: From a neuroscience point of view, do you have any thoughts or ideas on why many autistics have a problem with self-initiation and self-prompting? That is to say, we may be capable of fully performing a task and even be motivated to do so, yet we often need a kickstart from an external source. This external prompt can range from very subtle to actually being told to start for different individuals. Why are we not able to kickstart ourselves, even when motivated to perform?

It’s a very subtle interaction, distinction between self and others. The specific areas in the brain that are involved in that include frontal structures, and these may be affected in some way. The connections between neurons may be affected — it’s a very complex circuit. How you listen to others needs an order from higher up, either from your own ego or from somebody else’s command allowing you to actually initiate the command yourself. Circuits involved in this are poorly understood. Certainly not my area of research.

DC: What advice would you have for Cal students who aspire to pursue research or careers in behavioral neurology or the neurosciences?

Go with an objective mind and go and hang around people who are passionate about what they do. Professors, faculty members, other students. Read widely — don’t just read the textbook prescribed to you. Expose yourself to a wide range of audiences of people. Instructors, professors, teachers. Work in their labs … and don’t hang around skeptics. Skepticism is the last stage in science. We generated the ideas, tested them rigorously. You say this idea is possible but needs to be nailed down properly. You don’t start off with skepticism.

Hari Srinivasan wrote the Thursday column on his experience as a nonverbal autistic student in Spring 2018. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @HariSri108.