By Francesca Tully
When soldiers come home from war and return to their lives as they were before, sometimes something as common as the shutting of a car door or the running of a lawnmower can trigger strong memories of combat, weapons firing, and bombs. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a problem haunting millions of individuals worldwide.
What if there was a way to suppress those fearful memories of warfare? What if we had access to a drug that kept those memories at bay once a soldier returned to his or her life back home? These are questions Subhrajit Bhattacharya, a doctoral student in the Harrison School of Pharmacy, is trying to answer.
Bhattacharya is researching the ways in which we might be able to make fearful memories more difficult to recall. With his research, he seeks to discover how to disrupt the reconsolidation process of the memories so that they are not recurring.
“Say I go into a room and I get bitten by a spider. The next time I go into the room, I’m anticipating that a bite might come, which might or might not,” Bhattacharya says. “How do I remember? I don’t remember the same thing if I go into another room. It’s because that’s where it happened, and that is carried forward by the cues: the environment, the smell, the color of the wall. That refreshment happens through different receptors and neurotransmitters. There’s a particular pattern that goes on with the neurons in your brain that helps you to remember what happened.”
Reconsolidation of memories is a natural process that would take place whether there is any interference or not. Bhattacharya seeks to intervene into that process.
“It happens to all of us. What we are trying to find out is the mechanism by which it happens,” Bhattacharya says. “Then we intervene into that mechanism so that we can unprotect a memory. It can be used as a tool to intervene into that bad memory and stop it from recurring. If we know how to stop the wave of refreshing the memory, instead of going back and treating someone, we can try to devise something that can be delivered to soldiers before they go to war, and that way they would not have a very strong impression of the fearful events in their mind, like a preventative measure.”
Under the direction of his faculty advisor, Vishnu Suppiramaniam, Bhattacharya is the only graduate student in the Harrison School of Pharmacy who is working on this particular research topic.
Along with Suppiramaniam, Bhattacharya also collaborates with Martha Escobar, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology. “She deals with the behavior part of it. We deal more with the pharmacological and the neurophysiological components,” he says. “Understanding the mechanisms is what we deal with, and she designed the behavior model that we use, like how to create the fear.”
The area of Bhattacharya’s research can still be considered somewhat of an unchartered territory. It is not a large or well-known field. “There are a handful of labs in the United States and six to eight labs in Europe, along with some researchers in South Korea and Japan. It’s very specific, very cutting-edge,” he says.
In 2009, Bhattacharya stood first in his class in his pharmacy studies in his native West Bengal, a state of India that is home to more than 9 million people. He attended one of the top-ranked high schools in India. There, he formed a solid foundation in math and the sciences that would eventually propel him academically to where he stands now.
Bhattacharya has known since a young age that he wanted to study the human mind. “I always felt challenged by thoughts on systems of the body. There is a lot to be learned in any field. However, take ophthalmology for example,” he says. “A doctor is almost sure when going into an operation that he is doing the right thing. The same thing could be said about the heart. If we talk about the brain, we don’t know a lot about it. The brain is so complex. We’ve just started knowing about its evolutionary trends.”
Bhattacharya knows the power and intrigue of the brain. “The brain is faster than any machine we could build. In my mind right now, I can go back to my hometown of Calcutta, India,” he says. “We don’t fully know how the brain does these things.”
He wants to learn more about these unknowns. “We also don’t know how complex emotions come, why we feel that we are ourselves. How do we feel that we are ourselves? What happens when we die? We just lose that feeling? All these questions bothered me when I was growing up, and that’s what led me to want to be a neuroscientist.”
Once he completes his doctoral degree, Bhattacharya hopes to work in a postdoctoral fellowship, continuing his research and learning in the ways of the human mind and memory.
According to Bhattacharya, only a fraction of the human “brain story” has been read so far. The human brain is extremely complex, with many facets to the way in which it works, and we have yet to fully understand it all.
“We don’t exactly know how memories are formed at the very basic physical level and how each memory differentiates from the other,” he says. “We know a lot about it, but we don’t know the whole thing.”
Last modified: December 19, 2016