Brain research in Aalto University receives prestigious EU grant
European Research Council (ERC) has awarded a grant of 1.3 million euros for a venture lead by Aalto University Docent, Academy Fellow Lauri Nummenmaa. Nummenmaa’s group studies the brain mechanisms behind human social interaction.
Human interaction requires that we experience the world around us in a similar way and that we are able to communicate our goals and intentions to each other. Although no direct connections between individual brains exist, we still understand each other perplexingly well and can effortlessly communicate our thoughts and feelings.
In a new research venture in Aalto University School of Science, scientists will take an unprecedented in-depth look into the functioning of the human brain. They aim to find out how the brain transfers information from person to person, and how the brain stores information so that people are able to understand each other.
– With novel measurement and analysis techniques, we can study brain activity in almost real-time in extremely natural circumstances – for instance while people watch the interaction of characters in a feature film. We can also measure brain activity from two test subjects, who are locked in a conversation, and detect how information is transferred from one brain to another, explains the director of the research project, Lauri Nummenmaa.
– This is a major step forward in cognitive and affective brain research, which has traditionally been constrained by simplistic and stripped-down experimental settings.
Instead of studying how individual parts of the brain process, for instance, unpleasant images flashing on a computer screen, the methods used by Nummenmaa’s group enable research of the temporal behaviour and network structure of the brain mechanisms supporting emotions and social interaction.
– We will gain completely new knowledge about how the brain perceives, interprets and stores dynamic social events, which can last up to tens of minutes, tells Nummenmaa.
The results of the Aalto University research project are applicable first of all in planning future education and teaching. In addition, the research will expand our knowledge of dysfunctions in social interaction, such as autism spectrum conditions and social phobias.
– As our understanding of the brain function in typical face-to-face interaction improves, we will be able to come up with more effective treatments for brain dysfunctions resulting in impaired social interaction.
Participants’ brain activity is measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging, while they are engaged in social interaction or watching social interaction depicted in films. Nummenmaa’s group utilises a novel and exceptionally fast magnetic resonance imaging technique measuring brain activity with the accuracy of tenths of a second. Spatial information of the brain activity changes are not stored precisely during the measurement, but reconstructed after the experiments with computational methods.
Lauri Nummenmaa, Docent, Aalto University
lauri.nummenmaa [at] aalto [dot] fi
tel. +35 840 586 6700