by Dan Hickey ’04 | Director of Communications
The human brain is a wondrously complex organ. A piece of its tissue the size of a grain of sand is packed with 100,000 neurons and 1 billion synapses, according to Northwestern Medicine. The single piece is just one small part of a dynamic processing center that moves information along at 268 miles per hour with enough energy to power a lightbulb. Yet, for all we know about the brain, it remains frustratingly opaque, particularly regarding its diseases. One Brooker, Ayan Mandal ’14, PhD, is seeking to demystify the brain in an effort to give people more control over their long-term health.
Mandal, who is currently an MD candidate at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, saw his passion for medicine stoked in his own home by a father who was a physician and by his brother, Amit ’09, who went into the medical field. “Medicine was in the household,” as he put it. He came to The Brook as a seventh-grader and found a place that expanded his world and helped him learn how to learn over his six years. “I had very good teaching that set me up well for college, grad school, and medical school. Mr. Altug gave me a very good foundation in AP Biology, Mr. Winston taught me how to think, not just memorize in Calculus, and I learned how to take new information and integrate it from Dr. Riley.”
During his time at SBS, Ayan was a captain for the cross country, wrestling, and track teams, earning the Swanson All-Around Athlete Award his senior year. He also served on the Admissions and Activities Councils, yet still found time to excel academically, earning recognition in the Cum Laude Society and as the salutatorian of his class. After graduating from Stony Brook, he attended Georgetown University, where he earned his BS in neurobiology and physics, receiving the Barry Goldwater Scholarship for his work in mapping brain structures of patients with aphasia. He was drawn to neuroscience, partly through his experience in Dr. Sean Riley’s philosophy and Paulyn Church’s AP Psychology classes, where he learned that “the mind and body are separate entities, but connected in meaningful ways.” He found inspiration in the natural synthesis of using scientific tools to address philosophical questions, and it has continued to fuel his work and pursuits since leaving One Chapman Parkway.
From Georgetown, he moved on to the University of Cambridge, where he earned a PhD in Psychiatry before entering UPenn in 2021. Alongside his medical school studies, he continues his research into how tumors spread through the brain in the hopes of understanding where tumors go and why they concentrate in certain locations. His work also involves developing growth charts for the brain in order to both measure healthy progression and develop supports and treatments for underdeveloping brains. These metrics could also aid in the early detection of schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s by measuring brain atrophy compared to a normal brain growth trajectory.
Mandal’s passion and knowledge, coupled with his desire to write for a public audience, resulted in a book that was published this fall entitled, A Stethoscope for the Brain: Preventive Approaches to Protect the Mind, with a goal of providing proactive preventions for brain diseases. “The public sees the brain as a black box. Information about proactive brain health is out there, but it needs to be talked about more.” In his book, Mandal discusses how cutting-edge research is allowing doctors to be proactive about terminal brain diseases. For example, ALS results from a rare genetic mutation, but scientists have discovered a predictive gene that could allow the disease to be identified earlier. With the help of pharmaceuticals, the deterioration of nerve cells in the brain may be prevented. The risk factors for strokes are also becoming clearer, and those who don’t smoke, maintain healthy blood pressure, and exercise regularly lower their chances of developing one. He hopes his book will provide a rebuttal to the “bad news bias” that can accompany so much science reporting. “I want to resist the notion that we can’t do anything about brain diseases.”
In all his research and writing, Mandal has developed a deep appreciation for those he is learning from. “People with diseases of the brain have so much to teach us. It is a privilege to know them and speak with them.” Helping patients with aphasia, glioma tumors, and other ailments continues to fuel his work, along with three words that were instilled in him at Stony Brook. “Character Before Career. I always think about it. It’s helped me really concentrate on making a real impact in the world through my research and writing.”
“None of this would have happened without Stony Brook.”
Click here to purchase A Stethoscope for the Brain.