Prof. Bhaktee Dongaonkar’s stories are riveting. Her research looks at the effects of stress on memory and learning, Depression and Ageing. The cognitive scientist is an interesting amalgam of a psychologist with a foundation in electronics engineering.
“Over the last few years, there has been a compelling need to build digital versions of the cognitive tests that I’ve worked on. That project has taken off really well after I joined IIIT Hyderabad”, smiles the professor who joined the Institute in January 2022. She brings nearly two decades of expertise in her research studies on stress, depression, ageing, cognitive impairment, learning and memory.
Always the seeker, from an early age cognitive scientist Bhaktee would choose the elemental over the cookie-cutter formula to fulfilment. The daughter of two successful surgeons, she completed electronics engineering from Savitrabai Phule University, Pune but her inclination was always towards understanding the human brain and behavior. “While there wasn’t any particular trigger, I always wondered what fired the synapses of engineers who came up with interesting innovations and devises. A lot of the fundamentals of electronics get applied to how neurons fire in the brain. There is overlap between how electrical current flows through electrical circuits and brain circuits. “How does your brain compute all this information to give rise to creative thinking or problem solving? While it might sound a bit amateurish, those were the early thoughts that intrigued me”, she observes.
To her good fortune, the University of Allahabad had established a Center of Excellence in 2002 and a M.Sc in Cognitive science was offered. It was a trial program open to students from any background, covering brain and behavior. “Cognitive science is very interdisciplinary and it needs a bit of neuroscience, psychology, computer science basics, philosophy etc. Everything fell into place nicely and it made the two years Masters very interesting”, notes Bhaktee who received the Outstanding performance scholarship in her M.Sc.
In the interim between B.Tech and Masters’, a one-month residential yoga instructors program at S-VYASA University, Bangalore helped her to understand the Indian philosophical view point on the mind-body connection and how they define stress. She went on to complete her Ph.D in cognition and neural systems from the University of Arizona and published her dissertation on the Effects of psychosocial stress on episodic memory updating She contributed a chapter on Emotion, stress and memory for The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology.
Memory changes in depression and a dollop of Brahmi ghee
Bhaktee married IT professional Vikram Parmar halfway through her Ph.D. When she returned to India, she joined the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore as a postdoctoral fellow. Over a 4-year period, she recruited nearly 250 depression in-patients at National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) for an extended study on how their memory changes over time, using established experimental methods. She would juggle her research work along with her duties as a young mother. In 2018, Bhaktee received travel grants from Infosys and CSIR to attend the Learning and Memory conference organized by University of California, Irvine “It was a great experience to catch up on the latest in the field and I got to give a small lightning talk on the depression data at that conference”, she says.
“Once we were able to establish that these experiments can be done in India, a transdisciplinary university in Bangalore was looking for someone who could conduct memory tests in human participants for the scientific validation of ‘Brahmi ghee’ (traditional Indian formulation) to study if it improves cognitive well-being of the elderly in urban India. Most of the current formats of Brahmi available in our markets are alcoholic extracts but the traditional form is supposed to be just the juice mixed in ghee and that formulation hadn’t been clinically tested”, she explains. The study is currently underway.
She received two fellowships during her post-doctoral work, one from DBT for her paper on Differential effects of unipolar versus bipolar depression on episodic memory updating followed by another from DST for the Brahmi study.
Depression, Memory and some hairy tales
After a teaching appointment at FLAME University, Bhaktee joined her present role as Assistant Professor at IIIT Hyderabad, teaching courses in learning and memory, statistics and cognitive neuroscience. “We explore the link between human behavior, stress and memory and cover several aspects of sleep and its link with stress, memory decline and depressive symptoms in participants.
“I’m collaborating with a CCMB scientist who has established stress testing in animals by analyzing animal hair samples. We will be testing human hair samples in different demographics to understand chronic stress levels in our society”. Cortisol is the stress hormone that gets deposited in the hair follicles. When you take a strand of hair from the crown of the head, the lowest one inch closest to the scalp reflects the last few weeks of your life and if you’ve experienced stress in that time, it will reflect in the hair sample.
“In our Ageing studies, we see that loneliness and social isolation can be quite debilitating and can lead to anxiety and cognitive impairment in older adults. Earlier this year, we received a grant from IHub to study Ageing in the Telangana population. We will collect psychological and medical data from blood tests, brain scans, cognitive testing and genetic testing of different adult demographics”. She explains with the example of Gut health, which is very inter linked with one’s mood. When the gut environment comprising of good bacteria and enzymes are at optimal levels, you will maintain good moods and can regulate your sleep and anxiety levels. Simple hacks like a balanced diet or Intermittent fasting, early dinner, consuming fermented, probiotic or good bacteria foods can help restore some of your gut health. The corollary is that Irritable bowel syndrome or a leaky gut for example, could be traced to patients facing anxiety in their lives.
“In IIITH, you have the liberty to choose your research topics and design and teach your course. I have 100+ keen and curious students in my learning and memory class because it is a topic that has never been offered before. My work is still in the early stages but I have computer science students who are doing a lot of excellent independent work. In the past year, they’ve made significant progress on the digital tests that we have been developing”.
“IIITH has a nice, well managed campus. Living on campus has its perks as it offers a lot of flexibility for a working mother. Interacting with students in non-academic settings also helps me to understand them better. Being a part of the diversity committee, I really appreciate the efforts of the apex committee and the manner in which students welcome freshers and help them transition into academic and campus life”.
That which puts the sparkle into life
“I had sparkling role models growing up, watching my mother, aunt and mother-in-law, working and managing everything, she admits. “They inspired me to make tough decisions regarding continuing my career after having a child. Vikram’s support has been unwavering throughout. My father was an orthopedic surgeon and vice chancellor of Maharashtra University of Health Sciences in Nashik. My mother is a gynecologist and obstetric surgeon. I grew up around a lot of health-related talks and maintaining a healthy lifestyle”.
The professor enjoys swimming and participates in all campus sports activities. “I love Nature especially travelling to the mountains”, says Bhaktee who recalls that in India, her most memorable treks were to the Kudremukh peak in Karnataka with its breathtaking vista and the jungle retreats around Chikmagalur and Coorg. She professes to have eclectic reading choices and prefers books on history, philosophy and autobiographies. “One very interesting read was Andre Agassi’s autobiography, where he talks about his anger issues and how tennis actually helped him channelize his anger. I find it a fascinating concept, on how you can put anger to good use and not take it as a negative construct”.
“For me, my meditative practices are the activities that calm me down, like gardening or craft work. I enjoy cooking and experimenting with unusual dishes and baking my own bread. Movie-time with family is always special, more so if they are mystery and detective whodunits! I love working with my hands and repurposing things”, says the eco-friendly scientist who is pro-waste segregation and makes the best out of waste. “Right now I’m learning to cut glass bottles for a garden project”.