Delving Into Uncharted Domains of the Infinite Mind

Singapore?s National Neuroscience Institute (NNI) may be barely 3 years old, but it is already a vibrant, promising, and fast-growing biomedical specialty institute.

Staffed by some 180 individuals, fully one-third of them scientists or medical professionals, NNI is a bustling centre for clinical services, research, and education.

At the helm, steering the institute forward, is its director, Professor Simon Shorvon, a British-born epilepsy expert. Shorvon took up the challenge of nurturing the then fledgling institute in 2000, and NNI has not looked back.

Professor Simon Shorvon, Director,

National Neuroscience Institute

The only institute of its kind in Southeast Asia, NNI is a widely acknowledged regional centre of excellence for neuroscience. Equipped with some of the best technologies for neuroimaging and intervention, it provides quality clinical services for patients and certified advanced training for the region?s newly qualified neurosurgeons.

Earlier this month, the institute received a SG$10 million boost--the largest research grant ever to be awarded for public biomedical research in Singapore--from the country?s Biomedical Research Council (BMRC). The grant will see NNI and its research partners through a massive 5-year undertaking to track the genetic basis of various neurological diseases.

What makes NNI stands out from the rest? What?s their strategy for success? Shorvon attributes it to ?the mix of clinical and basic science, the high quality of the laboratory science, the enthusiasm of the staff, and the youthfulness of NNI.?

Another of NNI?s fortes is its multipronged approach to neuroscience. By facilitating interactions between clinical and basic neuroscientists, this approach enables the convergence of scientific and clinical perspectives in disease management and patient care.

The institute houses a clinical centre, which comprises four clinical subdisciplines--neurosurgery, neurology, neuroradiology, and neuropathology; a specialty education and training unit; and a centre for basic and translational research. By fostering research across disciplinary lines and over borders, however, NNI has extended its reach far beyond its own disciplinary confines.

NNI has established collaborative links with several other local academic and research institutions, including Kent Ridge Digital Labs, the Institute of Material Research and Engineering, the Genome Institute of Singapore, the National University of Singapore, the National University Hospital, and the Defence Medical Research Institute. And it has also established connections with renowned overseas institutions, such as the Institute of Neurology in London and Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

On the home front, the efforts of NNI?s growing cadre of researchers are drawing attention. NNI?s good reputation, excellent facilities, and favorable research environment have attracted some bright and promising scientists to its research centre.

Despite their own specialist interests, NNI scientists share a common goal. Delving into the uncharted domains of the brain, they hope to uncover the mechanisms underlying brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson?s, as well as epilepsy, stroke, and other neurological disorders, and to find ways of preventing or intervening the disease process.

Certainly, it is no easy task to unravel the operation of the body?s most sophisticated device?-the staggering 100 trillion neuronal connections that constitute the mind--and tackling diseases that are not only complex but insidious. And for a nation grappling with an aging population, there is plenty of reason for concern and lots of catching up to do.

In particular, says Professor Shorvon, ?There is an urgent need for discovery in the field of ageing. The key is neuroprotection--to find ways of increasing the quality of life of the elderly and ways of delaying the adverse effects of ageing.?

It is estimated that over the next 15 years, the percentage of the Singaporean population that is 65 or older will double from 10% to 20%. Neurodegenerative diseases will become more common as the population ages. Providing quality of life for the aged will be a primary concern of the health care system, and NNI?s role is imperative here.

The prognosis is promising, however, because neuroscience is advancing rapidly. Genomic research is helping scientist to unravel the mysteries behind neurological disorders, and increasingly advanced imaging technologies allow neuroscientists to study mental and biologic processes real-time in living subjects. The resulting more definitive elucidation of neuronal pathways and processes is facilitating the development of drugs that are better targeted to systems or receptors implicated in neurological disorders.

Professor Shorvon?s next challenge will be to navigate NNI through the rapidly evolving neuroscience landscape. ?We wish NNI to grow through grant funding and to strengthen its core fields--neurogenetics, applied technology, neurophysiology, neuropharmacology, epidemiology, and clinical trials,? he says.

NNI?s imminent merger with the Brain Centre at Singapore General Hospital will further consolidate the nation?s neuroscience resources. In anticipation of the expansion--the Brain Centre?s staff will join NNI--the institute has just called for qualified applicants to fill four new top positions in the divisions of neurology, neurosurgery, neuroradiology, and neuropathology.

Additional recruitment--to fill research positions created by the newly awarded BMRC grant--is anticipated to follow soon. With consolidated resources, additional funding, better focus, and good leadership, NNI is bound to continue to grow, both in stature and in capability.

These positive developments in neuroscience in Singapore make for exciting news for young graduates, postdocs, and junior scientists contemplating a research and development career in this fast growing field. To them, Shorvon says, ?Go for it! Exciting prospects are there in many fields such as genetics, physiology, pharmacology, immunology, and neuropathology!? Coming as they do from the individual who spearheads the nation?s neuroscience initiatives, these words are worthy of careful consideration.

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