One by One, Neuroscience Is Unlocking the Brain’s Mysteries, Speakers Say at Hitachi Lecture
The patient suffered from advanced Lou Gehrig’s disease and had been in a vegetative state for two years, never speaking, never showing a sign that she could hear. But Japanese scientist Hideaki Koizumi wanted to know more about her condition, and so he fitted the patient with a brain scanner—a thin cap with electrodes attached.
When he asked her to try to speak, the language production areas of her brain lit up the brain-imaging equipment. When he asked her to listen to what he said, the language comprehension area of her brain activated. As he prepared to ask her some questions, he told her that if she wanted to answer yes, she should imagine moving her hand in a certain way; to answer ‘no,’ she shouldn’t imagine anything at all.
Then, as he asked her questions, the researchers were stunned to find that the apparently unconscious woman was answering their questions. “We found that this patient has clear consciousness,” Koizumi said during his presentation at AAAS.
Koizumi spoke along with Thomas Woolsey, a neuroscientist best known for his pioneering experiments on how experiences shape the anatomy of the cortex. The 23 April lectures were first installment of the Hitachi Lectureship at AAAS, a series in the spring exploring the work of Japanese researchers at the intersection of science and society. Another AAAS-Hitachi lecture series takes place each fall featuring leading scientists from the United States. The staff at the AAAS International Office and the AAAS Science & Policy Programs works with Hitachi to coordinate the lectures.
Alan Leshner, AAAS CEO and executive publisher of the journal Science, provided opening remarks during which he emphasized Hitachi’s interest in science and society and communicating science to the public. Neuroscience “is among the most complex subjects and among the fields that is developing at the most tremendous rate,” said Leshner, a neuroscientist and former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Kiyoshi Kinugawa, president and CEO of Hitachi America, Ltd., in his opening remarks emphasized the importance of global cooperation in solving problems. “Science and technology have never been so central to our national and international agendas,” he said, listing climate change, energy, health, and information technology as key issues. “All of them present great opportunities and post enormous challenges to society. It is clear that these global problems cannot be solved without active cooperation among scientists and policymakers on an international basis.”
Headquartered in Tokyo, Hitachi Ltd. is one of Japan’s leading technological and industrial companies and develops information systems, electronic devices, power and industrial systems, and consumer goods, among other products.
Koizumi, a researcher at Hitachi Ltd., described his studies with the paralyzed, vegetative patient and how they commercialized the instrument used to detect brain signals from her. The instrument has other uses, with similarly profound potential. The researchers have showed how the brain can be wired to technology so that simply by thinking, a person can stop, start, and change the speed of a toy electric train. “It’s really fun,” Koizumi said, provoking a laugh from the AAAS audience. But it’s no toy: The brain-controlled train could become a tool for special education and rehabilitation.
A pioneer in safe, non-invasive methods to observe brain activity as it happens, Koizumi aims to develop brain scans safe enough for use in newborns, children and elderly persons. Koizumi holds the title of Hitachi Fellow, a top R&D position at Hitachi equal to that of Board Director. The position assures freedom of choice and funding support for his research. At AAAS, he described his studies using a technique he developed called optical topography, in which optical fibers attached to the scalp shine weak near-infrared light onto the head. The light passes through the skull and into the cerebral cortex, where the light is scattered in a pattern consistent with the activity levels of the nerve cells. The scattered light goes back through the scalp and is detected by a second optical fiber, where the brain activity can be interpreted.
Koizumi’s research team has used this brain imaging technique to study language development in infants. In 2003, he and his collaborators reported that within five days of birth, language centers of the brain can detect spoken language. The researchers found this in both Italian and French newborns. “Maybe they learn the accent and intonation inside the [womb],” Koizumi said.
Koizumi described some of the research themes of his lab, such as mind-brain science and education. He appeared at a 2003 scientific meeting at the Vatican focusing on mind, brain and education, and the new journal that he edits has the same name. In fact, Mind, Brain and Education won the 2008 best new journal award from the Association of American Publishers. Koizumi believes that the journal received the award because it’s a platform to fuse two disparate disciplines. “The distance between mind-brain science fields and educational is very far,” Koizumi said. In the 21st century, it’s important to bridge and fuse those completely different fields, he added.
Koizumi ended his lecture with a short discussion on the ethics of brain science, saying that with science and technology advancing so rapidly, scientists and engineers need to understand the impact of their own work and make responsible decisions on the future of their research.
Woolsey, from the Washington University School of Medicine, gave a selective review considering brain-imaging techniques and emerging treatments for brain disorders. He characterized the brain as a significant consumer of energy and resources: Its weight may only be 2-3% of total body weight, but the brain at rest consumes about 20% of oxygen and 20% of glucose, and 20% blood flow goes to the brain, Woolsey said.
Studying where blood flows in the brain gives insight to which brain areas are more active. Woolsey uses mice to investigate correlates between blood circulation in the brain and brain activities and abilities. He is best known for pioneering experiments using the model of the mouse whisker barrel cortex, a sensory area in the brain that allows mice to use their whiskers as navigational tools. “Whereas we use vision, they use whiskers,” said Woolsey, a member of the AAAS board of directors and a neuroscientist.
One of Woolsey’s early research papers on the mouse barrel cortex—published in the journal Science in 1973—showed that damage to specific whiskers on the mouse’s face caused particular brain regions to disappear. “It turns out that the cerebral cortex in their brain, has cells that are arranged in the same pattern as the whiskers on the face and this is the part of the brain that responds to moving the whiskers,” Woolsey said. He named the brain regions “barrels” for their three-dimensional shape. The findings demonstrated that parts of the body communicate with the brain and can cause the brain to restructure itself, and Woolsey said that the findings appear to apply to other mammals, including humans.
In 2006, researchers in Switzerland found that the cortical cells grow new connections, or synapses, when their corresponding whiskers are wiggled continuously. The new synapses show up within 24 hours of whisker-wiggling. No new brain connections appear for cells related to non-wiggling whiskers. “What does that say? It says that the brain is plastic in adult animals and adjusts those contacts to match the situation,” Woolsey said.
Woolsey moved on to describe differences in individual’s brains and abilities. Using Albert Einstein’s brain as an example, Woolsey said postmortem analysis of the physics genius’s brain revealed an unusual pattern of folding. “Your brain is about the size of a cafeteria tray,” Woolsey said. To fit into the skull, the brain is rolled up and crinkled like a piece of paper.
In Einstein’s brain, Woolsey said, anatomists have found differences in the crinkles in his parietal lobe, associated with the perceiving space and moving through it. But, did these distinctive folds lead Einstein to breakthroughs such as the quantum theory of light? “Whether this accounts for his genius we don’t know, but his brain is definitely different,” Woolsey said.
Woolsey highlighted several promising treatments for brain disorders. For Parkinson’s disease, an implanted electrode stimulated the brain of a Parkinson’s patient and alleviated her hand tremors. “Lots of Parkinsonian patients are benefiting from deep brain stimulation because we understood the anatomy, chemistry, biology and pathology, of the nervous system,” Woolsey said.
In another common brain disease, Alzheimer’s, no one until recently understood the normal function of proteins that make up plaques characteristic of the diseased brains of older adults. Neuroscientists found that the proteins help the nervous system develop properly from a very early age. “This is astounding,” said Woolsey, adding that a better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease is among the developments he expects to see in the near future.
Woolsey concluded with an anecdote from one of his visits to a grade school classroom, where his discussion of neuroscience and show-and-tell on the brain made a fifth-grader think that the brain should be jazzed up a bit. The student created and sent Woolsey a piece of artwork depicting a more stylized version of the brain with polka dots on the cerebellum and book over the cortical region that processes reading.
For Woolsey though, the brain is fascinating just as it is. “I think there’s nothing more exciting and compelling as a scientific frontier,” he said. “And that’s why I think the brain is the ultimate frontier.”