Neuroscience and the Nigeria Project: The Scholarship of Adesola Ogunniyi

Professor Adesola Ogunniyi

Tunji Olaopa

In this piece, I essentially celebrate the septuagenarian initiation of Professor Adesola Ogunniyi. And I do this specifically to appreciate the existential doggedness of someone who rose from a humble beginning to become one of the topmost neuroscientists on the continent. It is axiomatic for me that celebration and eulogies should not be delayed until a posthumous occasion. If a person has done well in conquering the anxieties of life and produced giant strides, it is too late to eulogize such persons after death except to consolidate their legacies.

Prof. Ogunniyi is a giant in neuroscience, and he deserves accolades beyond wining and dining as we were treated to on the 9th of December, 2023. I also have a clannish interest. Prof. Ogunniyi is my clansman. And over the years, I have tasked myself with the responsibility to detail the achievements of those eminent figures who have embodied what I have called the Aáwé mystique.

In this piece, I want to weave a narrative that connects this mystique with Ogunniyi’s strides in dementia research, and the policy implications of the connection between neuroscience and neurophilosophy.

I have written about Aáwé being a small town built by little men with huge foresight on a future made strong by education. I will not speak to the confluence of geography, history and people that make Aáwé similar to other Yoruba towns, or the narratives of ancestral founding and apocryphal imaginaries that set the town apart. Aáwé began little, and remain small in terms of socioeconomic and political reckoning. And yet, Aáwé’s strength lies in the generational and communal investment that birthed great names that are the testaments to its resilience and progress.

The smallness of Aáwé is displaced by its greatest achievement—the aggregation of its diverse indigenous pool into a developmental capital that propels continuous advancement in social, cultural, economic and political terms. Aáwé’s indigenous pool is made up of the expatriates abroad who invested in educational advancement and those, equally educated, who didn’t leave Aáwé town but are committed to its advancement.

Professor A. Ogunniyi

Those at home and abroad are equally sensitised to the urgency of community development which has been facilitated over time through the framework of social groups. Prof. Ogunniyi as an Aawe boy indeed has distinguished forerunners and I can mention a few namely, Rev. (Dr.) J. A. Adegbite, principal, Baptist Academy, Rev. (Dr.) S. T. Ola Akande, president and Secretary-General, Nigerian Baptist Convention, Prof. E. Latunde Odeku, the first African Neuro-Surgeon, Prof. Ojetunji Aboyade, the renowned economist, Chief A. O. Amoje, the business mongol, Prof. Olu Akinyanju, founder of the Sickle Cell Foundation of Nigeria, to name just a few
Prof. Ogunniyi personifies that Aáwé mystique, the Aáwé dream that manifests in the greatness of education and enlightenment. And this began from the methodic and loving parenting he got from his federal civil servant father, Papa Samuel Oyedele Ogunniyi of Ile Olode Oke Bata, and mother, and a school teacher mother, Mama Margaret Oyedoyin Ogunniyi, also an Aawe indigene, who instilled the carry-over values of communal relations into the young Ogunniyi—discipline, godliness, contentment, respect, love for family and relations, and educational support.

Though born and raised in Lagos, the young Ogunniyi benefitted from the Aáwé spirit of extended filial love and cultural beingness that gives the indigenes their personality, and tie them to their small town forever. According to him, his father almost always took them to Aáwé for communal connection and for holidays and festivities.

The Awe Improvement Union had Baba Ogunniyi always in attendance, and in regular consultations over how the small town could keep investing in the greatness of its people. And Prof. Ogunniyi, the son, is one of the consequences not only of a home founded on a solid moral framework, but also of a sociocultural model of a town that takes it as an imperative to build the individual ad build the mind as an investment into human and social capital that reaches from the Aáwé town to the entire world.

Professor Ogunniyi had several shoulders to stand on, from those of his parents for character formation and deep spiritual and relational value to those of scrupulous mentors and role models right from schools to professional practices. From Fiditi Grammar School to Igbobi College, and from the University of Ife to a research portfolio in neuroscience, Prof. Ogunniyi had a total package in mentoring that inculcated character, values, academic excellence, discipline and a competitive spirit that still stands him in good stead wherever he finds himself.

From biological sciences to medicine and onward to neuroscience, he was firmly within the professional cohort of mentors and the neuroscience pioneers: Professor Adeoye Lambo in neuropsychiatry, professor Latunde Odeku in neuroscience, Professor Benjamin O. Osuntokun in neuroepidemiology, Professor Ezekiel Caxton-Martins in basic neuroscience research, Professor Roger Makanjuola in psychiatry, and Professor Gabriel Osuide in neuropharmacological research. By the time he finally made a choice of neuroepidemiology, all these powerful figures and role model had already rubbed off their enormous global influence and scholarly commitment on him sufficiently to push towards becoming a force to be reckon with in dementia research in Africa.

This is not a mean feat. Being at the forefront of not only a rigorous research regime but one that also initiates the framework for pathbreaking medical discovery points at the mind of a committed scholar who keeps withstanding the acute limitations of Nigeria’s postcolonial university and research facilities. Prof. Ogunniyi, like many others, diligently carried the enormous burden of postcolonial limitations and became eminent and preeminent in spite and despite that traumatic academic and research condition.

Prof. Ogunniyi’s scholarship straddles medicine, neurology, neuroscience and neuroepidemiology. And this scholarship places him right in the frontline of innovative neuroscientific research in Nigeria. And this goes with the enormous burden of postcolonial limitations that attend such innovative research fields as neuroscience.

But then, Prof. Ogunniyi is not one to run from challenges. All his life to this point, he has been taking on challenges and treading paths that had significantly shaped the frontiers of neuroscience in Africa. And he had indeed pushed the research boundaries of neuroepidemiology and dementia research to the critical juncture of becoming the first African to win the Bruce S. Schoenberg International Award in Neuroepidemiology in 1991, and from the American Academy of Neurology. And that award became a worthy salutation to the mentorship of Professor Schoenberg himself.

Neuroscience is simply about the human brain and the nervous system, especially their function, structure as well as their disorders and degeneration. Prof. Ogunniyi’s neuroepidemiological research focuses on the epidemiological investigation into the incidence, prevalence, frequency and risk factors involved in the prognosis of neurological disorders. In his own words, his scholarship in dementia research carries the “burden of dementia and the risk factors including the association with hypertension, gene-environment interactions with regards to lipids and apolipoprotein E as well as the predictive value of weight loss in individuals with cognitive impairment.”

Neuroscientists are tasked with the fundamental objectives: first, to understand the brain, the nervous system and all its functional and degenerative dynamics; and second, to alleviate the possible neurological and psychiatric disorders from whatever conditions and circumstances. At a much deeper level for neuroscientists are the contextual ramifications of the neurological circumstances generated by developing countries in Africa, for instance. In fact, Africa provides enormous limitations and possibilities for neuroscientists that are not available in other contexts. Essentially, for me, Africa’s and Nigeria’s underdevelopment status has a huge significance for the mental and neurological disorders and neuro-degenerative diseases that are made possible for Nigerians, while also increasing the potentials for developing and finetuning neuroscientific and neurological expertise. It is within this context that we must place the pioneering breakthroughs in the scholarship of Prof. Ogunniyi and all those who broke the frontiers ahead of him in neuroscientific and neurological research.

Prof. Ogunniyi’s scholarship however provides me with the opportunity to explore my fascination with neurophilosophy. I mean, beyond the exciting theoretical possibilities of linking the concerns of neurophilosophy to Ogunniyi’s neuroscientific research, what implications does that portend for health and medical research and practices in Nigeria? Before neuroscience and neurophilosophy was the philosophy of mind, and the fundamental reflection of Rene Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher. Descartes’ research instigated a whole lot of epistemological problems for western philosophy, post-Descartes. What is consciousness? What is mind? what is matter or body? What is the relationship between mind and body? Is the mind different and exist independent from the body? Can mental processes be explained in terms of a scientific account of physiological processes? Can freewill be understood in terms of physicalism? What about mental causation—the problem of whether or not mental processes can cause other mental or physical processes? Can physicalism explain self-identity over time?

These questions have generated various responses and answers that engages with our perception of reality. Cartesian dualism, for instance, has been challenged by a simpler physicalist explanation that rejects the existence of non-physical entities in the understanding of the human person. But can a Christian be a physicalist, given the belief that humans are made up of body and soul? Is physicalism even compatible with freewill? In other words, if humans are solely explainable in terms of physical and physiological states and processes, in what senses can we say such an individual is free?

All these questions anticipate a space for further engagement that generates interdisciplinary collaborations, like the recent one between the Institute of Neurosciences, University College Hospital and the Department of Philosophy, University of Ibadan.

Indeed, a tantalizing question is the research implications of conceiving Adeoye Lambo, Benjamin Osuntokun, Adesola Ogunniyi, and others as neurophilosophers. What will constitute the neuro-philosophical implications of Ogunniyi’s frontline researches into neuroscience and specifically into dementia research? How can we develop the preliminary outline of care ethics from Professor Ogunniyi’s research into the care for dementia patients? I see such a collaboration not just in terms of the interdisciplinary research that African scholars should be doing, but also in terms of the theoretical and intellectual leeway that African neuroscientists and philosophers can articulate especially in areas like neuro-philosophy, and the multiple implications it can have for sundry areas like neuro-administration! But from my perspective as an institutional reformer, I am concerned with another question: How does the disarticulated developmental and governance dynamics of a postcolonial Nigerian state affect the neurological state of an average Nigerian, elite or ordinary? I mean to ask: how does a demented state like Nigeria lead to the observation of neuro-degenerative consequences for her citizens? And more: how does this neuroscientific research influence institutional reform considerations?

We can begin unraveling these questions at the base of neuro-administration by agreeing to a simple axiom: underdevelopment has psychiatric implications. Poverty, unemployment, infrastructural decay, underdevelopment and bad governance that have turned Nigerians into angry and bitter citizens always demanding for better quality of life without getting it. When the expectations of good governance are constantly being deferred by irresponsible governments, dementia becomes a possibility.

The far-reaching implication is that neurological disorder is directly proportional to social disorder. And this is because the Nigerian leadership has lost touch with the imperative of the mental health of her citizens. and this in itself is also a neurological matter! For instance, there is a neurological disorder behind a politician or public official diverting public fund to private ends; or even one person stealing money meant for the commonwealth, and these questions can be expanded as wide as one’s imagination reaches.

*Prof. Tunji Olaopa
Chairman, Federal Civil Service
Commission, Abuja