What makes you vulnerable? What makes you resilient? These are some of the questions that Mumbai-based neuroscientist Vidita Vaidya has lived with for almost two decades. Professor at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Vidita’s lab has been studying the effect of emotions and trauma on the brain, seeking to understand how the nervous system protects the brain, and how we can protect future generations from psychological disorders, including depression and anxiety.
Highly relevant at a time when mental illness is on the rise, her work is poised to have a far-reaching global impact and could change the way societies around the world raise children, help people deal with trauma and stress, and aid pharmaceutical companies in designing better psychiatric medications.
The only child of well-known medical doctors– her father is a clinical pharmacologist and her mother an endocrinologist, both still active in their domains – Vidita was immersed in the world of science from the day she was born. After completing her graduation in Life-science and biochemistry from St Xavier’s in Mumbai, she headed to Yale University to do her Master’s and PhD in neuroscience.
There, she met Ajit, the man who would be her husband – he was doing his MBA at Carnegie Mellon at the time. After a year in Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, Vidita joined the University of Oxford, UK, to do her second post-doc and “lived in the same city as Ajit finally”.
After eight years of living outside India, the couple returned to their beloved motherland where Vidita joined TIFR, India’s premier research institute for mathematics and science, as an independent researcher. Armed with seven-year funding from the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research charity based in London where she was a senior fellow, she set up her own lab in Mumbai when she was just 29 years old.
With a focus on molecular psychiatry and studying the circuitry of emotion in the brain, the bottomline for her research was: “Why does stress enhance psychological disorders in the brain, and what protects the brain from the negative effects of stress?”
What she found was that critical stressors in early life have a profound effect on the organism’s entire life. “Early adversity is clearly a risk factor,” says Vidita. “Trauma itself is short-lived but its effects are lifelong.” By studying how the brain responds to traumatic events helps not only in understanding the roots of mental illness in later age, but also why certain people develop resilience to stress as they grow older.
“For instance, abuse, separation of parents, the loss of a parent in childhood can be a risk factor for mental illness but there are also other profoundly protective factors – such as support, care and acceptance – that can help mitigate the effects. It can be called therapy. Trauma alters the brain, yes, but what you do after trauma can dramatically alter the trajectory of your life,” says Vidita, who is a fellow at the Indian National Science Academy.
Vidita’s research into how the brain responded to stress and its environment is, as she puts it, “still only fundamental research pushing the boundaries of knowledge.” With the WHO predicting psychiatric disorders to be a major global burden by 2020 – depression, which is currently ranked fourth among the 10 leading causes of the global burden of disease, will have jumped to second place by then – Vidita’s studies will eventually translate to better treatments and even better psychiatric medications in the future.
The inadequacy of current psychiatric drugs is disappointing for Vidita. “There is a design flaw in current anti-depressants. One out of three patients doesn’t even respond to treatment. And the others respond after a long period,” she rues. “We need to speed up the process.”
In 2010, Vidita’s team did in fact develop ways to help speed up the healing process in animals and, two years later, she won the National Bio-science Award, one of the highest Indian biology awards. This was followed by the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in 2015.
Just last month, Vidita and her team at TIFR published a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with the results of a study that found an unusual function for serotonin, the neurotransmitter in the brain that regulates mood, social behaviour, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire.
“We found that serotonin reduces reactive oxygen species, thus providing neuroprotection against cellular stress. Serotonin can impact the manner in which neurons grapple with stress and affect the trajectory of ageing,” Vidita was quoted as saying in The Hindu after the results were published.
Vidita is animated and articulate as she describes the idea that genetic risk is still only a risk, and that the environment can have “a deeply profound effect on the brain” in both positive and negative ways. “Even male and female brains may cope differently with stress in the way they respond in the immediate moment as well as recall of stressful experiences later,” she illustrates.
“Yes, one can think of oestrogen as a protective factor in females for neurological disorders, but its fluctuations may also contribute to increasing risk in women for depression and anxiety. More importantly, women have incredible support structures to cope with grief and stress. We have been socialised that way, to lean on one another. So both biology and environmental conditioning are important.”
She explains that while one’s gender – or even lifestyle disorders like Type 2 diabetes – may be in one’s genetic blueprint, “but your interaction with the environment is constantly working on your brain and has a greater impact on your life.”
Sadly, Vidita got first-hand experience of dealing with grief when her husband Ajit passed away in October last year, just short of his 49th birthday, leaving her and her 14-year-old daughter bereft. “We lost him too young; I had to face that,” the 48-year-old says stoically, crediting him for being an equal partner in marriage and parenting. “I was lucky and blessed to have a spouse who shared the load of all household and childcare responsibilities and was the greatest cheerleader in my career, but many women scientists may not have that kind of support at home.”
Nearly 45 percent of entry-level PhD scholars in India are girls, says Vidita, but then you see the gradual attrition after that, until they are a small minority in senior positions.
“That’s because the system doesn’t offer sustained support for women – both professionally and personally. There is an undue burden on them,” she regrets. With her invaluable research and by standing up for other women in the field, Vidita is setting the stage for change in more ways than one.
Photography by Bhavisha Kaku-Shah. First published as the cover story of the June 2019 issue of eShe magazine.