NEW DELHI--India is hoping to break into the front ranks of neuroscience with a new National Brain Research Center (NBRC) that opens here this week. The venture hopes to capitalize on India's large population and on a pool of talent now scattered around the world: Indian researchers now working abroad are expected to fill most of the 12 new scientific slots, working in areas ranging from developmental and computational neurobiology to the effects of malnutrition on the brain.
The center, funded by the Department of Biotechnology, will be devoted to basic research. "It will be a state-of-the-art institute ... and will have no clinical facilities attached to it," says Manju Sharma, a botanist and secretary of the biotechnology department, adding that the center will serve "as a national apex for brain research." In another unusual twist, half of its $4 million budget over the next 3 years will be earmarked for extramural research, including scientists at labs funded by other ministries, such as the well-regarded National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore.
India has a special opportunity to contribute to the field of neural imaging, says Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath, a neurochemist in line to be director of the center, by carrying out large-scale functional mapping studies on so-called "drug-naïve patients," those with neurological disorders who have not yet received treatment. Supporters acknowledge that it will be a while before the center can hope to enter the front ranks of global science, however. "Catching up is a Herculean task, and it may take another 20 years," says Prakash Narain Tandon, a neurosurgeon at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. But they argue that creating the center is an important, and necessary, step.
India is already looking for international collaborators. About 250 scientists from five countries are participating in a Colloquium on Brain Research here this weekend to showcase the new center, and Richard Nakamura, deputy director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, is heading a delegation that expects to sign a memorandum of understanding for future collaborations and scientific exchanges with NBRC. The center also hopes to link up with Japan's Brain Science Institute at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN), outside Tokyo. "India is not without promise in the neurosciences," says Nakamura. "Indian scientists have always done very well in the U.S. because they are well trained and do not face a major language barrier. By setting up strong centers within India, this brain drain can be slowed, and talented scientists can help develop the economy of India and work to improve the health of its people."
The center is currently housed in temporary quarters at the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. Work is under way on a new home in Gurgaon, about 35 kilometers outside Delhi, where an unused vaccine laboratory built several years ago is being renovated.