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19 May, 2011  ▪  Dmytro Simonov

Games Our Brains Play

Academician Oleg Khrishtal, chair of the Department of Cellular Membranology at the Bohomolets Institute of Physiology, speaks about science and the wonders of everyday life

Ukrainian scientists have no lack of courage to run unusual experiments, but when it comes to funding, they often give up in the face of red tape, perennial underfinancing, bribery and other bureaucratic hurdles. Oleg Krishtal is one of the few who has secured research funding and even set up a system to monitor the money flow. This eminent biologist is used to fighting both nature's mysteries and the ignorance of his fellow countrymen. ESP and paranormal phenomena have scientific explanation, he maintains.

THE FUTURE OF BIOLOGY

What the state spends on science is not asmall amount of money. But after it is split up among the nation's numerous institutions, there is not enough left in any individual laboratory to obtain serious results. We have made a proposal to set up a small number of key labs that will carry out research in the strategic fields in which Ukraine has significant potential. After a number of years, an international supervisory council will check their results to make recommendations about their further financing to government bodies.

The first key lab was founded in 2011 by the Bohomolets Institute of Physiology and the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics. The two institutes employ the majority of Ukrainian biologists with high international readings. This lab will do research cell physiology and molecular biology – the cutting edge of the contemporary biological science.

Despite overall optimism, we certainly have our share of hardships, because Ukrainian legislation is in no way adopted to such innovations. Even today effective laws are an obstacle for our research. For example, we keep running into problems with having chemicals delivered from abroad, and these are both financial and legal problems. In my life I have been forced to fly abroad only to personally bring in a few milligrams of an important substance without which it was impossible to do research.

I hope that labs of this kind will be also set up for other branches of science. It would be good if the same principle were used: select the cream of the crop of Ukrainian scientists and let them compete internationally. This is an absolutely transparent goal, and if the government is consistent, Ukraine will have a worthy place in the world of science — one its history, potential and people deserve.

Humankind has entered an era of new biology. Over the past 30 years science has opened bright prospects. A large part of the past century was the age of concrete and steel, and now we are making a transition to exploiting the results of evolution. We increasingly often use biogenetic technology to have more better-quality food, live in better conditions and suffer less from diseases. So the development of biology is a high-priority task for any government, including Ukrainian.

The world spends tens of billions of dollars every year to develop neuroscience. Great hopes are pinned on this field with regard to the future of technology. The world’s biggest scientific forum is the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Neuroscience: the 2010 meeting in San Diego was attended by 36,000 people.

PAINKILLERS

Although we see a multitude of medicines in drugstores, all painkillers belong to one of the two classes. The first one includes non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which originally started from aspirin and were later developed in the form of, say, diclofenac. When it comes to handling serious pain (postsurgical healing or cancer), the other class is used – opiates. These include morphine and its derivatives. The first class acts peripherally by inhibiting the sensitivity of nerve cells in aching body organs or areas. Opiates also have an effect on the central nervous system. As we know, pain is, in fact, an emotion produced by the higher regions of the brain. However, pain sensations originate in the peripheral system where the affected organ or tissue is located. This process makes use of the so-called primary pain mechanisms (scientists call them primary nociceptors). Three main types of primary pain mechanisms are known. Two them were discovered in the Institute of Physiology back in the 1980s. This is an important achievement of Ukrainian science. If you ask the world pharmaceutical industry whether there are any ways to influence these primary nociceptors, the answer will be negative.

We set the goal of creating pharmaceutical substances of an absolutely new kind, i.e., a third type of painkillers. We are experimenting with the venom of one genus of Central Asia spiders which contains a pain-blocking compound. We hope to be able to make a discovery in this field and thus continue the tradition that goes back to the 1980s when we were the world leaders in this area. We cooperate with scientists in the USA, Russia, Sweden and Germany.

Science is now experiencing a qualitative leap. It has become so ramified and is using such a colossal number of details that from the viewpoint of outsiders individual new discoveries are becoming less and less significant. We all know the anecdote about how an apple fell on Newton’s head leading him to formulate the law of universal gravitation, which was to become the cornerstone of our knowledge. Today any step in science requires a no smaller degree of ingenuity than he had and also costs a pretty penny. Paradoxically, it is sometimes too hard to explain the essence of new discoveries to the average person.

SCIENCE WILL GENERATE TALENT

So-called paranormal phenomena do not exist. What exists is our failure to understand all causes and consequences of such events. What I have just said is my credo. But I will add something else: no one is free of superstition. Me either. The reason people cannot live without superstitions is that they understand that it is not within human power to grasp all causes and consequences. That is why people are in a gray area, even though it may seem to them that everything is under control in this world.

Telepathy does not exist, either. Regarding people’s ability to memorize long lists of numbers or even entire texts they read these phenomena have yet to be explained by neuroscience. We should remember that they occur rarely and this is precisely the reason why they seem strange.

We need to understand that, for example, the wondrous qualities of sanctified water have, in fact, nothing to do with water itself. They are in our heads. On the other hand, there is the mystery of our existence as rational and sensitive beings. The reality is indeed miraculous, not in the sense of there being some kind of wonder but in that it is fantastic to our minds as we learn it.

Each one of us is potentially a supergenius. Imagine an ordinary PC with open windows giving you access to different programs. Every person has their own set of windows and uses their brain within these limits. “Windows” to phenomenal abilities open accidentally, due to coincidences in the person's development, education process, etc. It is impossible to teach someone to be talented – it is a matter of chance, but let me add: thus far. I am sure that neuroscience will make a true breakthrough in this direction. Through concerted efforts and developed metalanguage we will be able to replicate intellectual genius. This will turn humankind into an intellectual continuum, and the issue of individual intellectual superiority will disappear, as we can already see in science today. Contemporary science is not an era of individual bright minds: Newton, Einstein and others. Its discoveries are a product of collective genius, and this trend is set to increase in the future.

There will be no “alternative science.” There may be different schools of thought, and at some stages groups of scientists may even hold diametrically opposed views. The importance of schools of science has drastically changed but not disappeared. Schools used to have different “scientific creeds,” but now the main thing in the scientific pursuit is proven, reliable knowledge.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

Oleg Krishtal is a professor and academician of Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences. He holds a doctorate in biology and is one of the most frequently cited Ukrainian scientists.

Born on July 5, 1945 in Kyiv, he received a diploma in molecular physics from Shevchenko Kyiv University in 1968. He has worked at the Bohomolets Institute of Physiology since 1969, as a chair of the Department of Cellular Membranology. At different times Dr. Khrishtal has been an invited professor at the University of Kyushu (Japan), Harvard University (USA), Comlutense University (Madrid, Spain), and the University of Pennsylvania (USA). He is the chair of the Ukrainian Society of Physiologists and the Ukrainian Society for Neuroscience. He has authored and co-authored over 300 scientific publications.


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