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Calcutta misses, West catches

New Delhi, July 25: India neglected research on the treatment of violent mental disorders by two Calcutta physicians in 1931 and missed an opportunity to lay a foundation for modern biological psychiatry, psychiatrists have said.

The work by physicians Kartik Chandra Bose and G. Sen was virtually ignored by India’s research community. But US and European scientists advanced their work during the 1950s, gained fresh insights into the chemistry of the human brain and developed new drugs for mental disorders, two psychiatrists from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore, have said.

The NIMHANS doctors, Sanjeev Jain and Pratima Murthy, have scrutinised medical journals and archives of modern psychiatry to document how circumstances and a twist of fate prevented the lead from Bose and Sen from being pursued in India. Their account of this episode in India’s science history appears today in the journal Current Science, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences.

“We were ahead in the 1930s, but had lost out by the 1950s,” said Jain, a professor of psychiatry. “Such neglect leads to usurpation — then crocodile tears are shed over (someone) stealing our knowledge,” Jain told The Telegraph.

Bose and Sen had published a landmark paper in 1931 where they described the first successful treatment of psychosis and violent symptoms with the extracts of a plant called Rauwolfia serpentina, known for long in traditional Indian medicine.

They showed how a pinch of a powder extracted from this plant taken twice daily reduced violent symptoms within a week. “Their paper provided the first modern empirical evidence for this therapy,” Jain said.

After the paper was published, an Indian chemist, Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, initiated a systematic chemical investigation of the plant and isolated several compounds. But after Partition, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan requested Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to send Siddiqui — who had by then also developed the indelible ink used even today in Indian elections — to Pakistan.

No one pursued further research on the plant, although the crude powder continued to be sold across India as a product of traditional medicine. This practice kindled a fresh era of research in the US and Europe in the 1950s.

A psychiatrist named Nathan Kline in New York showed in 1954 that a compound, called reserpine, obtained from the plant could be used to treat schizophrenia. Other studies led to new insights into the action of this product in the brain.

A Swedish scientist, Arvid Carlsson, advanced the work further and showed in 1957 how drugs could be designed to counter a side effect (depression) of reserpine — for which he shared the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2000.

The research on reserpine helped unlock the chemistry of the brain involving a class of chemicals called catecholamines and produced what Jain says is a fundamental tenet of modern biological psychiatry.

While scores of clinical trials of reserpine were conducted in Japan, Europe and the US during the 1950s, there was not a single research publication evaluating its use from India, Jain and Murthy have pointed out in their paper.

These studies on a compound from a plant, known in India for centuries but introduced to science by Bose and Sen, helped create a multi-billion dollar industry of anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs, they said.

Medical scientists believe lessons from this episode are relevant even today.

“There’s this ‘Berlin Wall’ between medicine and plant-based organic chemistry,” said Marthanda V.S. Valiathan, a cardiac surgeon and former president of the Indian National Science Academy. “Medical researchers tend not to look at plant-based chemicals. They think it is a hobby of chemists,” Valiathan said.

The type of inter-disciplinary research that may have been needed to advance reserpine chemistry within India in the 1950s is not abundantly visible even today.

“Medical students don’t know what a university education or research is like — and university researchers are isolated from medicine,” Jain said. “We’re likely to lose out on even fresh developments.”

The Bose factor

Some renowned scientists who share a surname and a forgotten few

Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937): Physicist and physiologist who pioneered research on radio waves, produced devices for generating electromagnetic waves and demonstrated that plant tissues can generate electrical responses

Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974): Physicist who established theoretical physics in India and whose ideas Albert Einstein built upon to propose the concept of the Bose-Einstein Condensate

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Girindrasekhar Bose (1887-1953):
A psychoanalyst in Calcutta who founded the Indian Psychoanalytic Society in 1921 and was in extended correspondence with Sigmund Freud

Kartik Chandra Bose:
A physician in Calcutta who worked with another physician, Gananath Sen, to produce the first modern evidence for successful therapy of violent mental disorders with the extracts of the plant Rauwolfia serpentina in 1931. Later, western scientists followed up this work to gain new insights into brain chemistry and develop anti-psychotic drugs

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