For the benefit of people

Minna Hölttä

Pinning down brain disease is a contact sport, Professor of Systems Neuroscience Matti Hämäläinen has found during his career.

Professor Matti Hämäläinen is Director of the Aalto Brain Centre. He also serves as a part-time professor at Harvard. Photo: Aino Huovio.

In a way, it all started with four students drawing straws.

It was summer 1981 and a group gathered at the Low Temperature Laboratory in Otaniemi was facing a minor dilemma: four new summer students all wanted to work in a new project aiming  to develop the first MEG devices for monitoring the magnetic fields of brains.

'None of us was primarily interested in working on fundamental physics, so we decided to draw straws to decide – with the caveat that it would be possible to switch posts if the outcome was totally unpalatable,' Matti Hämäläinen says with a grin.

Now, 34 years later, he is Professor of Systems Neuroscience on the same campus and in charge of the neuroscience and neurotechnology hub Aalto Brain Centre, in addition to which he is a part-time professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School. You grabbed the right straw then?

'I always tell my students that they shouldn't worry too much about what they will do when they grow up. I support the American way of thinking, according to which you are not primarily defined by your academic degree, but by your work and what you have achieved during your career.'

For more than just money

Brain diseases are associated with annual costs of almost €800 billion in Europe alone. This is an enormous amount – but aiming at savings should not be our primary concern.

'It really bothers me if the first and foremost issue mentioned when talking about illness is expense. The primary motive of research and the improvements in diagnosis and treatment that it enables is not to save money, but to prevent patients and their loved ones from going through a period of agony lasting up to decades,' Matti Hämäläinen emphasises.

The human numbers involved are truly startling. An estimated 150 million people suffer from serious depression around the world, while epilepsy afflicts 40 million and schizophrenia some 25 million. Treatment of these and many other brain diseases has advanced a lot during the last three decades. Magnetic imaging has become standard, and multichannel MEG, which was largely developed and then commercialised in Otaniemi, is already in use around the world as an aid to better-focused and safer brain tumour and epilepsy operations. MEG has also yielded a wealth of interesting data on the fundamental mechanisms underlying autism and schizophrenia, for example.

In favour of open source code

Many of the mechanisms that underlie diseases are still unknown. What is needed to identify these prime causes are, in addition to more advanced equipment, software that works in practice and more effective analysis methods, the development of which Matti Hämäläinen has dedicated his career to over the last three decades. He is also an enthusiastic proponent of open source code.

'Open source software is entirely beneficial. It increases reliability and improves repeatability by enabling everyone to know what is going on in the analysis, instead of leaving them at the mercy of some mystical black box,' he points out.

In addition to openness, Hämäläinen speaks out for a long-term approach favouring high-quality basic research.

'In the United States, universities focus strongly on gaining a deep understanding of disease and leave the development of apps to companies. The most important function of universities is the generation of new knowledge and this, in turn, leads to other kinds of nice things like applications and business activity. This is also what happened at the Low Temperature Laboratory in the 1980s and 90s: science led the way, and we did a lot of interesting stuff that later inspired others as well.'

Another feature of the US science that Hämäläinen appreciates is the insight that collaboration is valuable. Challenges like understanding brain diseases will not be resolved by anyone working alone.

'Something like this calls for cooperation between many researchers and different fields. And I am not talking about some consortium drawn up on paper either, what is needed is actual teamwork and the enthusiasm it engenders,' he says.

Within touching distance

Hämäläinen has been familiar with multidisciplinary cooperation since the early days of brain research in Otanimi when the laboratory, which up to then was primarily populated by physicists and engineers, was joined by Riitta Hari, who is an MD and Ph.D. Hämäläinen fondly recalls that their cooperation was uncomplicated from the outset, although it did take a while for them to find a common language.

'Risto Ilmoniemi and I, together with other physicists involved in the project, even took basic physiology courses in medical school in order to gain an understanding of that world. One can learn facts from books, but to learn the way of think of another discipline is more elusive,' he says.

Today, more than 20 professors and senior researchers representing fields ranging from physics to psychology and medicine work on neuroscience and neurotechnology at Aalto University. Aalto Brain Centre, which Matti Hämäläinen has directed since 2014, was established to support cooperation and brainstorming. Would it not have been possible to encourage cooperation without a new entity?

'Brain research at Aalto has world-class infrastructure, so in principle we can do anything. The ABC enables us to bring together people who might otherwise not be engaged in a collaboration. Getting ideas to collide calls for close contact: the best insights do not arise out of a palaver culture – instead, they often emerge from daily encounters at the lab or on a coffee breaks,' Hämäläinen says with a smile while he points out the window.

'Our colleagues in biomedical engineering are located a bit further away, there on Otakaari, so we may have to reach out a bit, too.'

The original article has been published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 14. (