June 25, 2017

8 Lessons from the Ghana Neuroscience Symposium

On the 5th – 6th of May, history was made as a collection of academics, clinicians, students and curious minds in Ghana gathered for the first time at the 1st ever Ghana Neuroscience Symposium. I was privileged to be part of the organising committee for this historical event and as an early career researcher, here are 8 things I learnt at the Ghana Neuroscience Symposium that you need to know:

1. A CRITICAL MASS HAS LITTLE TO DO WITH NUMBERS

The human body is controlled by an organ ~2% of its mass. Hormones can manipulate the body on a large scale but are released by a structure about the size of a bean. Very often I find that the ability to effect change has very little to do with numbers.

Participants & Convenors at the FliACT Neuroscience Workshop

At a FliACT neuroscience workshop in December 2015, a handful of Ghanaians decided they wanted a Ghana Neuroscience Symposium and a national neuroscience society.

Between 5th – 6th May, this same handful brought together over 70 people around the theme “Neuroscience in Ghana: Past, Present and Future”. Lecturers met former students now turned lecturers with their own students. All this was made possible by a select few who were committed and able to bring together three generations of persons with neuroscience interests. This proves that…..

2. GHANAIANS HAVE BEEN STUDYING NEUROSCIENCE LONGER THAN YOU HAVE BEEN ALIVE

Prof. Eric Woode, an extraordinary speaker and long time lecturer at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology provided the kind of historical perspective historians will die for. During his keynote address, he referred participants to a research publication entitled “The effect of magneto-induction energy on reaction time performance”, a paper which was published as far back as 1971.

It appears that somewhere along the line, momentum was lost but Prof. Woode was confident that “We are in the Renaissance period of neuroscience in Ghana“. The Ghana Neuroscience Symposium received much needed words from an expert in the field because…..

3. WITH AGE COMES THE POWER TO INSPIRE

Can you imagine yourself as a student or early career researcher hearing from keynote speakers with over 70 years combined experience and 200+ publications in the field? Can you imagine the impact this will have on an individual who feels to be going against the grain?

With great number of publications comes great responsibility

These men showed no signs of slowing down and were continually looking to add more to the body of knowledge. Really, “It is only one who is acquainted with war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on” (Sun Tzu – The Art of War). Youthful exuberance is great but experiential wisdom has a place that should never be overlooked because history has a tendency of repeating itself. While on the matter of history…..

4. DID YOU KNOW HERBAL REMEDIES CURE EVERYTHING!!!

A number of the basic science presentations had researchers investigating the use of plant extracts to treat conditions such as epilepsy and depression in animal models.

Mallotus oppositifolius aka Sratadua

Some of these extracts are known to be effective against a plethora of other conditions and the positive results presented, encouraged the need for further investigations. Interestingly, most of these plant extracts were known traditionally for their healing properties.

For example, among the Akan people of Ghana, intake of porridge mixed with select spices is advised for new mothers. Could this be because one of such spices known as “Sratuada” is an effective treatment for postpartum depression? Recent evidence seems to hint at possible anti-depressant properties. We are only now gathering evidence which is supporting what some traditional herbalist have known for a long time. This only guess to confirm that …..

5. A LACK OF CUTTING EDGE TECHNOLOGY NEVER STOPPED ANY SCIENTIST

There are many people we will not call scientist by today’s standards that were engaged in some form of experiments involving observation and hypothesis testing to increase knowledge. Throughout the symposium it was made clear that neuroscience research within Ghana takes place on in a resource limited setting. But when has that ever stopped any true scientist. We saw homemade devices for behavioural tests, innovative research design and alternative models for testing hypothesis.

Zebrafish vs Keta-school-boys. Who wins?

There was even the proposal to harness ‘Keta school boys’ as an animal model for research. These fishes could be the Ghanaian alternative to Zebrafish and deserve some investigation. In as much as Ghana has uniquely abundant problems, we also have uniquely abundant resources we can use to answer research questions.

Another thing uniquely prevalent in Ghana is religion and spirituality, something that should not be overlooked as a researcher because only a few people believe that…..

6. EPILEPSY IS NOT DEMON POSSESSION…. WELL MOST OF THE TIME

Before brushing this off completely based on some superior scientific knowledge you believe to possess remember that the only thing static in science, is the constant rewriting of what we know/don’t know. A growing body of evidence suggests that spirituality plays a role in an individual’s resilience, mood, mental health, physical health and possibly even evolution. Many researchers and clinicians will attest that drugs alone are not always the solution. Assuming that spirits are behind every ailment is as ignorant as assuming that spirituality has no place in science and medicine.

As a general rule of thumb, if you wish to make it to the pinnacle of academia,……

7. DO NOT MAKE CARELESS STATEMENTS IN A ROOM OF ACADEMICS

Not every area of science neatly lines up and not every piece of evidence is interpreted the same. In a room of academics with keen eyes and senses you are well advised to draw your conclusions carefully. Fail to do so and you will be taken to the cleaners, leaving both you and your conclusions shaken to the core. As an early career researcher, I save seen this happen at multiple presentations again and again. While many may not fully understand it, I was particular pleased to hear piercing questions after presentations that flowed into discussions during the breaks. This is how science has always grown and evolved and this is why I am confident that….

8. THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT

Where ever you find committed individuals with a vision, success is not far behind. The Next Einstein Forum was a clarion call. International organisations like SONA, TReND and IBRO are just itching to drive growth. Local organisations like GhScientific are still budding and telling the world that we are here.

The Avengers of Ghana Neuroscience

Truth is, resources have a way of locating people who are able and willing to maximise them. On the 5th – 6th of May, such people converged at the Ghana Neuroscience Symposium and when history is told, it will be said that there was nothing lucky about the surprising growth of neuroscience research in Ghana.

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