From Abstract Equations to the Human Brain with Nandini

Indian neuroscientist talks about her work on language, literacy and music.
By | Published on Sep 13, 2017
WHO? Nandini Singh Chatterjee
WHAT? Cognitive Neuroscientist
WHERE? National Brain Research Center, Haryana

Reported by Aashima Dogra

In the times of heavy propaganda and violent campaigns that describe the nation with the language of religious dogma, it is a relief to meet someone who chooses to examine ‘India’ rationally. ‘Rigorous scientific evidence’ is a buzz-term of Nandini Singh Chatterjee, neuroscientist stationed at the National Brain Research Center, Manesar. To address the dizzying complexity of a multicultural India, Nandini studies our brains.

“There is so much neuroscience research to do in India. There is a treasure trove of stimuli to study the brain with. Imagine the possibilities of gustatory work – on different tastes, or with pashmina and silk – to understand how people learn to develop sensitivity in what is called the somatosensory cortex or the touch system. The language systems in which our children grow up… oh it’s just fabulous!’’ cried the neuroscientist, who has published several papers on reading in multilinguals, autism, dyslexia and the brain on Indian classical music.

Nandini was not always interested in brains, not even close.

In 1998, Nandini the physicist sat in a room at Ohio University facing a computer full of abstract numbers and equations. She was bogged down and in search for inspiration. “I was frustrated because I realised that all my work was in sitting in the computer. I was not able to take anything back to people,” she recalled during an interview at her office in the outskirts of Gurgaon. “I had an adviser who was an emeritus professor, so he was not around in the lab much. I was alone.”

As a postdoctoral fellow studying nonlinear systems (the branch of science and mathematics that tries to model systems with unpredictable changes), the self-described people’s person started to look for applications of her field. The timing couldn’t be better. At seminars, she witnessed an interdisciplinary merging of biology and nonlinear dynamics. “Scientists were beginning to use methods of nonlinear dynamics to look at biological systems that were not easy to explain mathematically. Biology itself was making an attempt to move away from descriptive to some quantitative work.”

So after work hours, Nandini looked for new opportunities as her baby daughter slept. “I used to spend the time looking at websites of labs with interdisciplinary research questions that would interest me. I sent out my CV to some of these.”

The learning curve

Nandini eventually broke away from pure physics in 2001 by accepting an offer from a lab in UC Berkeley, USA. At Berkeley, Nandini continued to think like a physicist, but this time within the context of modelling a biological system – bird brains. She was dealing with data composed of nonlinear signals which vary in time. “Nonlinear signals could be heartbeats, weather patterns… in this case, they were signals from the brain of the zebra finch in response to sounds from other birds of its kind.” The lab wanted Nandini to model the chaotic behaviour of zebra finch neurons.

A male zebra finch. Image via Wikimedia Commons

“You would essentially model a linear behaviour with a straight line. But the neurons were clearly doing different things. It was not changing in a linear manner and it was not even clear what features of the input stimulus (bird song) it was responding to.” This was her first foray into biology.

“I loved the field of neuroscience. I got into mathematical representations of sound and analysing neuronal data.”  At neuroscience conferences and workshops, Nandini recalls asking ‘stupid questions shamelessly’ – nevertheless, the excitement of it all kept her going.

 No one ever trains you on how to run a research lab. It’s like setting up a little company.


At one such meeting – the annual meeting of Society for Neuroscience, which is one of the biggest meetings of brain experts – Nandini had an encounter with Indian neuroscientist Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath. Ravindranath, now at IISc happened to be in the process of staffing the then newly formed NRBC and she prodded Nandini to chart her return to India to study human brains.

Nandini joined NBRC in late 2002 and her first task was to set up a fMRI lab. “No one ever trains you on how to run a research lab. It’s like setting up a little company where you are given a pocket of money to deal with and then suddenly you are the boss in the lab. You have to manage finances, purchases and staffing. You have to find ways to get money to fund your research, support students’ research and you have to teach!” In addition, she reminded, there was also the matter of managing the personal work involved in setting up a new home. “There are a lot of things happening and just after a postdoctoral fellowship, these can overwhelm you.”

Getting started as a cognitive neuroscientist

As her lab was being set up, Nandini had already started to look for signatures of autism in babbles of young autistic children at NIMHANS, Bangalore. Her hunch was very early voice recordings should hint at underlying developmental problems in children. This was considered a very bold and audacious idea by her sceptics but Nandini was sure her rationale was sound.

Speech and language provide a lot of insight into how well the brain is functioning. It tells us if the brain is processing sound correctly. Essentially a means for social communications, language reflects on social developments and the intricate motor (related to movement) developments as different sounds are made.

With the voices she recorded on a laptop outside consulting rooms at NIMHANS, Nandini was able to show that there are indeed differences between the speech of non-autistic and autistic children. “Like is true of any disorder associated with the brain or the whole body in general, early identification makes a big difference,” she stressed. “These experiments also offered our first insight into understanding that children with autism like the predictable behaviour of machines. They love things that follow a pattern. What they don’t like is unpredictability.”

First adventure in imaging the brain

Meanwhile, Nandini’s fMRI lab was finally ready. To supplement her training in computational neuroscience and good scientific enquiry, she had been sitting in for neuroanatomy and systems neuroscience classes along with her students at NBRC.

The first experiment Nandini did on brain imaging was the replication of an experiment on how people read. It used the parameters as an existing study – only Hindi words were read instead of English words. Collecting the data from the MRI scanner was only the first part – then came the post-processing. She ran me through what this entails: “All the brain images need to be aligned, the signal has to be measured, followed by identifying the regions of the brain that are active versus inactive, imposing them back on the brain scan and making sure the whole thing makes sense.”

One of Nandini’s brain images from her work with multilinguals

“We managed to put out our first paper but it came back with terrible reviews,” she admitted. “The first journal immediately rejected it. But the reviewers were kind enough to respond with six pages of comments that I learnt a lot from.” The team addressed all the comments and Nandini’s first paper on reading in Devnagri script from India was published in the journal Reading and Writing. “It was the first paper of fMRI of its kind from India. There was a lot of excitement in the lab.”

That was just the beginning. Nandini and her team have done a lot more research on reading since then, including pinning down active brain networks in Indian biliterates (those able to read and write in two languages).

Making a tool for screening Dyslexia

The subject of biliteracy and her earlier work with children brought Nandini face-to-face with dyslexia – the condition of difficulty in reading. In her research, she realised that no standardised systems existed in India to screen and assess for dyslexia. She took up the challenge and in 2005, Dyslexia Assessment for Languages of India or DALI was launched for use by teachers and psychologists.

Singh’s DALI is supported by the Department of Science and Technology, GOI

“We have already built tools for screening in Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and English. These need to be extended to include other learning disabilities such as dyscalculia (difficulty with learning math), dysgraphia (difficulty in writing) and dyspraxia (difficulty in coordination and movement),” said Nandini, with a cautionary note. “It is important that teachers who are using DALI are familiar with the child for at least three to four months before they screen them. The idea is not to label the child but instead to identify if there might be areas of deficit that needs to be worked on.”

DALI makes India the only country in the world to have a native language assessment for dyslexia and Nandini is very aware of how crucial this is. She emphasised that learning to read is biological and a child with dyslexia cannot be dyslexic in one language and not dyslexic in another. Recognising her work, UNESCO has asked Nandini to come up with a universal screening tool which teachers across the world can use.

Disapproval of the obsession with English

Reading has become a pet subject of Nandini’s and she believes that in India the introduction to language literacy needs urgent repair. “The basis of learning to read is decoding symbols. We learn to map sound to letter, not letter to sound because we first learn how to speak. Words that are spoken are actually composed of different sounds that have come together. These different sounds are mapped to symbols,” she explained.

“Now if you step back a moment and think about this, the sound to letter mapping of Indian languages is fabulous – it is one of the reasons that these languages are phonetic.”

 “We absolutely have post-colonial baggage and we need to get rid of it.

“English is really bad at that,” Nandini lamented. “COUGH is cough and BOUGH is bough… when a child learns this and thinks COW is written like COUGH you can understand why he/she did that because that’s how he/she learnt to decode. Yet, we push our children to first learn how to read English. They come to school with Gujarati, Bengali, Kannada in their brains and then we ask them to read English!”

“The child should be first applying this process of mapping sounds (reading) in the language he/she speaks. Then we can transfer the skill of reading to a second language. If for some crazy reason you are insistent that the child has to learn it first in English then first teach the child to speak English then teach him/her to read English. That’s my primary point,” she said exasperatedly.

“We absolutely have post-colonial baggage and we need to get rid of it. Your child doesn’t have to read Harry Potter at age five!’’

Further work on Autism and Music

Nandini’s later work on autism shows that kids with autism are sensitive to pitch changes. They took fMRI data from 25 autistic children and showed the difference in the brain wiring when words were sung to them. As they listened to the word ‘apple’ being sung, they observed that networks in the autistic brain were not any different from regular kids. But when the words were simply spoken, brain networks were extremely atypical with little engagement of the left hemisphere of the brain (where a lot of spoken language is processed) in autistic children.

“In the left hemisphere, somehow the networks in the brain were operating differently depending on the stimulus being used. Then we went on to use this information to follow up with another study where we designed an intervention where the special educator working with the child would sing ‘look at me’”.

They found that the child was more engaged, made more eye contact and his expressive skills also improved. Some of her students are now working with Srishti School of Design in Bangalore to create an app to help autistic children based on these results.

Nandini recently gave a TEDx talk explaining this phenomenon.

These results led to the third area of study in Nandini’s research group: Indian classical music. At first, Nandini’s team attempted to help autistic children associate with emotions decoded in different raagas. But first, the music itself needs to be to standardised. For this task, Nandini and her team set up a study online where people across the world took part in associating specific emotional responses with specific raagas specially created by musician Pandit Mukesh Sharma. ‘‘He created twelve different raagas to test if it is the notes that are used to compose a raaga are responsible for the emotions generated.’’ They concluded that raagas essentially have major notes or what are called shudhasvaras that have primarily positive emotions associated with them. On the other hand, it is different komal svaras that play a role perceiving the music with different negative emotions or as Nandini prefers to call them plaintive emotions. ‘‘We find that there is a special role for the minor second, the komal Re, in deciding that raagas incite plaintive emotions. It is the single most reliable predictor of emotions like sadness or tension.’’ Nandini is also looking at structures of white and grey matter pathways in musicians who have had 20 years of training in music to see how their brain might be organised differently to those who never had training.

Nandini with her students and their fMRI scanner at NBRC

The love of science

All of Nandini’s amazing work with the brain carries the essence of bringing scientific knowledge from “bench to the bedside”. She attempts tirelessly to tie her science to people’s lives. She believes that as a society, we need to bring in the impact of science on learning and education. “This is a new time for educational neuroscience in India and this can go hand-in-hand with teacher training. We should try to employ methods supported by good scientific evidence rather than use hearsay.”

“I think we forget that science is essentially an attempt to be very very simple because nature is actually very simple, but sometimes we end up complicating it. Simplicity is key to science – we need to hold on to that idea.”

“What I love most dearly about science is that in the moment you make a discovery – whatever time of the day or night it is – at that point in time, it is only you and God who know about that truth in the world. And that’s the headiest feeling you could have in your life!”

“It has been a fabulous journey and I only hope that I can die in my scientist chair,” she said.

Only 14 percent of all researchers in India are women. Very few have the opportunity to further their scientific life to get to the fulfilment that Nandini enjoys.  What has been her experience with this gender gap in her community?

“I have had a number of women in the lab and I try to impress upon them to not get disheartened by the other challenges they have to face in terms of managing things at home. That should never impact the scientific rigour. If time is managed well and efficiently then there shouldn’t be problems.”

Nandini receiving the Millenium Alliance Award in 2016

Nandini went on to suggest that differences in genders can, in fact, help science. Citing neuroscience studies, she said that women bring a rare sense of commitment to their work and also take risks differently than men. This could be very helpful for science, according to her.

“We should leave gender out as we step into the lab. All that matters is that we have a healthy respect for each other as human beings. My favourite understanding of feminism is as ‘the radical notion that women are also human beings’. If we begin to really accept people as human beings and not as male and females, then science would really prosper.”

This report is dedicated to Beena Anand who generously supported our crowdfunding campaign last year.

About the author(s)

Aashima is a freelance science communicator, author and editor. She co-founded in 2016.

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