Nobel Conference 47 Presenter Profile: Vilayanur Ramachandran

Posted on July 28th, 2011 by

Vilayanur Ramachandran is schedule to deliver the first lecture of the 47th Nobel Conference at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4.

Phantom limb pain occurs in at least 90 percent of limb amputees and has been known about for hundreds of years, yet only recently has neuroscience begun to understand the condition and its relationship to empathy, and perhaps to the next great leap forward in human evolution.

Some neurons, which normally fire when you poke a patient with a needle, also fire when the patient watches another patient being poked. Vilayanur Ramachandran exploited this property, of so-called mirror neurons, and developed therapies for phantom limb pain and related disorders with a trick box that provides false visual information about the limb to counteract the phantom signals.

These mirror neurons seem to dissolve the barrier between self and other. Rama, as his friends and colleagues refer to him, calls them “empathy neurons” or “Dalai Lama neurons.” He says, “Dissolving this barrier is the basis of many ethical systems, and may imply that mirror neurons can provide rational grounds for ethics.”

The son of an Indian diplomat, Ramachandran spent much of his youth moving among several different posts in India and other parts of Asia. He had many scientific interests as a youth but eventually focused on medicine. After receiving his medical training in India, he pursued his interest in the field of neurology. He says, “How could you not be interested in understanding the brain?” At Trinity College, Cambridge, he studied vision and learned about mapping vision to different locations in the brain.

Returning to his first love, neurology, he began to try to understand how the brain fills in blind spots. He was able to apply what he learned to missing limbs and quickly made many discoveries about phantom limbs.

Ramachandran says, “Any field is exciting in its early stages. There are many opportunities for fools’ experiments. Faraday did many of these in the beginning stages of our understanding of magnetism. Neurology is still at the Faraday stage. Yet it is of vital importance. Why do you laugh and cry? How do you remember? We know so very little and there are lots of very elementary questions yet to be answered.”

Ramachandran studies neurology for two reasons, clinical and scientific. Understanding the plasticity of the brain, its ability to change with time, could very well help patients deal with pain and recover from many disorders. But understanding how the brain works is a first step in our drive to understand ourselves as humans, something that could enrich our understanding of our relationships and our place in the world.

Imagine we know everything there is to know about the intricate circuitry and functioning of the human brain. Scientists could create a “Matrix” scenario, where thousands of electrodes and patterns of electrical stimulation would make your brain think and feel that it’s experiencing actual life events, and the simulation could include a perfect sense of past, present, and future. Your brain wouldn’t know that its experiences, its entire life, are not real. And a philosopher would ask, what is real anyway?

One should not be surprised what Rama does for fun. In addition to walking and running, he studies archeology, paleontology, and cosmology. He says that he is a bit of a bookworm.


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