Early Life

The crisp smell of disinfectant mingled with the sandalwood scent of incense sticks is one of my earliest childhood memories. I was six when I first heard the deep “thud thud” of my own heart through a stethoscope. I was sitting in my mother’s clinic in India, playing with the curious “toys” and emulating my mom. I wanted to become a doctor like her and integrate the practice of Indian traditional medicine (called Ayurveda) with modern medicine. Twenty-three years later, she sat amid a sea of other parents 8,000 miles away from our home, witnessing her daughter walk across the stage in a black cap and gown. “Congratulations, Dr. Gupte!” beamed the Dean as he handed me my PhD. And so I realized my childhood dream of becoming a doctor, just not the kind that saw patients.

Stethoscope. Picture by www.allenandallen.com on Flickr.

My fascination with the brain began as an undergraduate student. It was in a class on Neuropharmacology – the study of how medicines can be used to manipulate the brain and influence behavior – that my interest in the brain blossomed. The idea that a pill could alter the brain at a cellular level to restore the balance of chemicals and give an insomniac a few hours of sleep, or make a depressed person feel better, or reduce seizures in a kid was almost magical! I was hooked. What other brain conditions out there had no solution yet? And more importantly, were there other ways to alter the brain at a basic molecular level without dangerous side effects?

Grad School Life

As a graduate student at the University of Iowa, my research interests levitated towards cerebral stroke. My thesis project focused on understanding the properties of specific ion channels and how they could be manipulated to prevent brain damage following stroke.

As I was finishing up grad school, concussion and traumatic brain injuries were beginning to crop up in the news. Scientists and clinicians were beginning to uncover the links between repeated hits to the head and long-term brain damage. The National Football League was embroiled in a number of lawsuits, being accused of hiding these links from players. And I was ready to dive into this new field of research which shared many underlying mechanisms with stroke, yet allowed me to expand my scientific and technical knowledge in new directions.

Photo by Adrian Curiel on Unsplash.

PostDoc Life

At the University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC), my research has focused on how age, gender and dietary supplements can affect recovery from traumatic brain injury. I pursued these questions using a technique based on a principle similar to MRI, called magnetic resonance spectroscopy. This technique uses radiofrequency and a very strong magnet to non-invasively measure neurotransmitters, antioxidants, cellular fuels and other chemicals in specific brain regions.

I probed whether dietary supplements such as ubiquinol (an enzyme found in the mitochondria of cells) and taurine (an amino acid that is an ingredient in several energy drinks) could be used as potential treatments for traumatic brain injury. While one of them showed some promise, the other did not really work as expected in the animal model that I was using. And this seeming setback taught me more about science than all the other “positive results” combined. It taught me to troubleshoot, to explore alternative hypotheses, and that it was important to publish even negative results so that other scientists could critique and evaluate the findings and the experimental rigor behind them. As with everything in life, and perhaps more critically in science, it is as important to know what doesn’t work as it is to know what works!

Photo by Jesse Orrico on Unsplash.

Science Communication Enthusiast

Although I had my first stint with science communication as a graduate student while attending a conference in Colorado, I truly started honing this skill as a Postdoctoral Fellow at KUMC. As part of a school outreach effort, I regularly volunteered to talk to high school students about my research. Sure, I had presented dozens of seminars to hundreds of scientists before. But being able to convey complex scientific ideas to high schoolers in an uncomplicated yet interesting manner presented a different challenge. One that I particularly enjoyed.

As a guest blogger for LifeOmic, I will draw inspiration from my Indian roots and my training as a neuroscientist. I will explore the science behind the purported benefits of lifestyle interventions and natural supplements on brain health, brain aging, and the potential prevention of neurological disorders. My LIFE Apps blog Nattering Neuron (can you tell that I love alliterations??) will also cover the latest research on novel diagnostics and treatments for a host of disorders of the brain and spinal cord. And if you have brain-related questions or topics you would like to know more about, feel free to write to me!

With football almost upon us, be sure to read my upcoming post on head injuries to understand the science behind the new “helmet rule” introduced by the NFL!