Published: 08th March 2021
Women's Day: Here's how Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay is helping doctors understand the impact of toxins on the brain
Through her groundbreaking research on neurotoxicology, Sanghamitra is analysing the impact of metal and pesticides on the developing human brain
After over a week-long wait, when we could finally get in touch with Dr Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay, she tells us that she was working on a collaborative project with ICMR - National Institute of Traditional Medicine (ICMR-NITM) in Belagavi. She was there to speak to the scientists about Neurotoxicology, a field Sanghamitra has been researching over the last 17 years. “We are here at ICMR-NITM to help the scientists understand more about Neurotoxicology and how traditional medicine can be used to prevent and reduce neurotoxicity,” says Sanghamitra, amid a meeting with the scientists. With a special focus on how metals and pesticides impact the developing brain, from prenatal to old age, her research also seeks to find the correlation between neurotoxicity and Alzheimer's disease.
It was in 2007 that Sanghamitra joined the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR) in Lucknow, where she was the first one to research the collective impact of metals and pesticides on the human brain. “Prior to that, everyone usually worked on an individual metal or pesticide. But I decided to work on a mixture of metals and pesticides as we are usually exposed to not one but a mixture of substances,” says Sanghamitra. At her lab, Sanghamitra experiments on live subjects and also cultures brain cells to expose them to those conditions that may be found in an average human brain.
One of the key aspects of Sanghamitra’s research is arsenic poisoning and its impact on the developing brain. “While arsenic poisoning is widely reported now, the reports are mostly about its impact on the skin. But it is not known that arsenic could impact the brain, especially those of children. It can lead to loss of IQ and memory. Arsenic could also lead to neuro-degeneration from an early age but it is very under-reported. It was the rareness of neurotoxicology research that drew me towards it and I decided that I would like to research it,” says Sanghamitra.
As part of her research, Sanghamitra also collaborates with clinicians from hospitals in Lucknow like Sanjay Gandhi Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences and King George's Medical University, something IITR specialises in. “We collaborate with paediatricians, epidemiologists and geriatricians in medical research and treatment. It is seen in certain areas, where Parkinson’s disease is prevalent, that farmers are exposed to pesticides. In such cases, the clinicians at the hospital refer to the neuroscientists in the institute to help with the treatment process,” says Sanghamitra.
After completing her PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Calcutta in 2001, Sanghamitra pursued her post-doctorate at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. After Israel, Sanghamitra moved to Harvard Medical School in 2003, where she began her work on neurodegeneration and Alzheimer's disease. “I worked on how heavy metals induced neuro-degeneration, especially Alzheimer's disease. Later, I worked on the preventive measures and treatment,” says Sanghamitra. About the implication of her research, Sanghamitra states, “Neurotoxicology research is very closely linked to society. Right from the impact of groundwater contamination to factories producing lead and cadmium, society is profoundly affected by neurotoxins in the environment.”