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Lokvani Talks To Pawan Sinha

Ranjani Saigal

Pawan Sinha is a tenured professor of computational and visual neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. He received his undergraduate degree in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi and his Masters and doctoral degrees from the Department of Computer Science at MIT.

Using a combination of experimental and computational modeling techniques, research in Prof. Sinha’s laboratory focuses on understanding how the human brain learns to recognize three-dimensional objects through visual experience and how objects are encoded in memory. Prof. Sinha's experimental work on these issues involves studying normal observers and also those with atypical developmental profiles or neurological disorders such as autism. The goal is not only to derive clues regarding the nature and development of high-level visual skills, but also to create better therapeutic routines to help children overcome visual impairments. One of Prof. Sinha’s recent initiatives is “Project Prakash”, which focuses on the large population of blind children in India and merges scientific relevance with humanitarian benefit.

Prof. Sinha is a recipient of the James McDonnell Scholar Award, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship in Neuroscience, the John Merck Scholars Award for research on developmental disorders, the Jeptha and Emily Wade Award for creative research, and the Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences. He has published extensively in several of the world’s top-ranked scientific journals including Nature, Science, Nature Neuroscience, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Proceedings of the Royal Society. His work has been profiled in several media channels including the New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC News, National Public Radio, TIME magazine, the Charlie Rose Show and TED.

Prof. Sinha has served on the program committees for prominent scientific conferences on object and face recognition and has been a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Vision and ACM's Journal of Applied Perception. He is a founder of Imagen Inc, a company that applies insights regarding human image processing to challenging real-world machine vision problems. Imagen was the winner of the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship competition. Prof. Sinha has been named a Global Indus Technovator, and has also been inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the world’s smallest reproduction of a printed book.

Sinha talked to Lokvani and his research and Project Prakash.

What is computational neuroscience?

Computational neuroscience is an exciting combination of experimentation and theory. It attempts to understand brain function in a mathematical precise manner. When working with an organ as complex as the brain, one can easily get overwhelmed with a collection of many different observations and phenomena. How can we keep this complexity under control? Computational neuroscience provides one avenue; mathematical models of brain function provide some unifying structure that can not only help understand the observations so far, but can also make predictions to guide new studies. It has many applications, including creating artificial intelligence systems as well as developing explanatory models of brain disorders.

I was drawn towards computational neuroscience because of my educational background, as well as the kinds of research questions I wanted to tackle. I studied computer science at IIT Delhi and then got interested in neuroscience when I came to the US (Berkeley and then MIT) for graduate studies. Computational neuroscience allowed me to combine my training and interests towards the goal of understanding how the brain works in a rigorous manner.

The research question I was most drawn towards was: How does the brain acquire its amazing abilities to make sense of the visual world? How do we learn to recognize faces and objects? I realized that we needed better experimental data on these questions before we could bring to bear computational tools to develop theories. This led to the genesis of Project Prakash.

What is Project Prakash

For most scientific enterprises, societal benefits are realized long after the research effort. However, in rare instances, even the process of conducting research directly benefits people’s lives. Project Prakash is one such instance. It grew from the confluence of a crucial humanitarian mission and the fundamental scientific quest I alluded to earlier. The overarching mission of Project Prakash is to bring light into the lives of curably blind children and, in so doing, illuminate some of the most fundamental scientific questions about how the brain develops and learns to see.

India is home to the world’s largest population of blind children. It is estimated that nearly 700,000 children in the country are either blind or severely visually impaired. The visual handicap, coupled with extreme poverty greatly compromises the children’s quality of life; childhood mortality rates are greatly elevated and prospects for education are severely diminished. Project Prakash seeks to identify and treat blind children, and simultaneously, build awareness amidst the rural populace regarding treatable and preventable blindness.

Embedded in the humanitarian aspect of Project Prakash is an unprecedented opportunity to study one of the deepest scientific questions: How does the brain learn to extract meaning from sensory information? The humanitarian initiatives of Project Prakash are beginning to create a remarkable population of children across a wide age-range who are just setting out on the enterprise of learning how to see. The Prakash researchers have begun following the development of visual skills in these unique children to gain insights into fundamental questions regarding object learning and brain plasticity. This is a unique and unprecedented window into some of the most fundamental mysteries of how the brain learns to extract meaning from the world.

 How did you come upon such a unique idea to combine research with such a powerful philanthropic cause?

When one visits India, it is hard not to see evidence of both great development as well as heartbreaking poverty. Seeing small children begging on the roads of Delhi was distressing, but even more shocking was to notice that some of these children were needlessly blind. Their blindness was curable and yet they had somehow not received medical care. It is impossible to not be moved to do something when one comes across a child suffering needlessly. I decided to help such children, but I also realized that in following their progress, we will gain deep insights into the precise question that I had been interested in scientifically. This perfect merging of two threads, one humanitarian and the other scientific, led me to launch Project Prakash.

What are the greatest accomplishments to date for Project Prakash on the research side?

One of the potentially far-reaching results from Project Prakash is evidence of recovery even after prolonged congenital blindness. These findings argue for a reconsideration of some long held conceptions regarding brain plasticity and time-lines of learning. Having followed the post-operative development of several children, my students and I have found that while some aspects of vision, such as acuity, are compromised by a history of deprivation, there is evidence of skill acquisition on a variety of functional vision tasks ranging from simple shape matching to object and face recognition. The human brain, these findings suggest, retains an ability to launch programs of visual learning well after the normal period of their deployment has passed. These results have significance for basic neuroscience as well as the practice of pediatric ophthalmology and the implementation of late stage blindness treatment programs.

From demonstrating the existence of recovery, we have transitioned to understanding the process of recovery. Our studies over time with the Prakash children reveal that their recovery unfolds in a systematic sequence. The elucidation of this arc of development opens up the possibility of mechanistically specifying how visual bootstrapping happens; how do complex visual skills derive from simpler ones that precede them in developmental chronology?

We have recently begun employing non-invasive brain imaging technology, specifically fMRI, to examine the kinds of cortical changes that accompany the initial stages of human sensory development. This issue is operationally difficult to address in the conventional setting given the severe challenges of conducting brain imaging studies with newborn infants. Project Prakash has provided an unusual opportunity to address this question. The results are beginning to provide clues regarding how rapidly the brain can change its functional organization.

What were some of the surprises that you encountered while implementing project Prakash?

Many scientific results that have emerged from Project Prakash have been surprising. The mere fact that children are able to use vision after having been blind for several years is unexpected. But, perhaps the sociological aspects of the work are even more surprising. For instance, I would never have expected that parents might actually prefer to have their child remain blind just so that they can stay enrolled in a school for the blind where they are provided with food and clothes. Yet, the level of poverty in some households is so extreme that this happens. Another surprise for us has been the difficulty Prakash children have encountered in entering the educational mainstream despite having sight. But, their age (too old to be enrolled in grade 1) often keeps them from starting their educational journey. This is indeed a tragedy and one that we are working towards addressing. Moving forward, we want to provide a ‘compressed’ educational course to the Prakash children to bring them up to an age-appropriate level so that they can then enter the regular educational stream.

What are the barriers to scale project Prakash?

The ideal way forward for maximizing scale and impact is to set up an integrated facility that combines on one campus a pediatric hospital, a school and a research facility. This three-way integration would have the most comprehensive benefit for the child, would allow us to treat many more children and would also serve as a model for other such facilities. The key need to realize this dream is funding. We need to raise significant resources to create the infrastructure and staff it with the world’s best people who are all driven to make a difference.

What kind of support are you looking for project Prakash?

At this stage, it is primarily funding. For a variety of reasons such as sustainability, we are targeting the Haridwar-Rishikesh area as the site for the proposed Prakash Center for Children. The first step is to raise money for acquiring the land and then additional funding for a staged creation of the hospital, school and research facility. Our estimate for the full Center is $16 million. This seems like a daunting figure, but considering the multifaceted impact it can have on thousands of children, it is a small price to pay. I remember walking into a hotel in Bethesda and reading a sign that proudly proclaimed that the lobby had been refurbished at a cost of $ 17 million. If we as a society can see it fit to spend that amount of money to give a facelift to a hotel lobby, I would hope that we would also see the Prakash Center as a worthy undertaking.

How do you manage to give so much time for this cause despite having a very busy schedule as a professor at MIT?

I think it all comes down to the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Just as I want the best for my child and am pained when he suffers even a bit, I know that every parent of the many blind children we have met must endure intense agony to see their child in the condition they are in. I feel a moral obligation to do as much as I possibly can to help alleviate this pain, both for the child and his or her family. Everything else is detail. I can rearrange some of my teaching schedules at MIT to attend to Project Prakash. MIT has been tremendously supportive of this work. As someone has said, when you set out to do a good thing, the universe rearranges itself to help you.

Any special message to our readers?

As we work towards creating the Prakash Center for Children, we sometimes feel overwhelmed with the magnitude of the challenge. But, it is a challenge we absolutely have to tackle. It is an obligation and an opportunity, a cause larger than any single person. I invite all of your readers to help us make a difference in others’ lives and, thereby, in their own.

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