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Honorary Doctor Claudia Tesche wants to “play the music of the brain back into it”

She was awarded for her pioneering work of over 30 years on neuronal dynamics and MEG brain imaging methodology and research.

 

Professor Claudia Tesche, a long-time Aalto University collaborator, was awarded an Honorary Doctorate 10 October 2014.

Tesche is now the Director of the Transcranial Stimulation Laboratory in the University of New Mexico.

During her career, Tesche has made several changes of course: early on from quantum physics to brain imaging techniques and later to psychology.

– You have to keep learning, it’s part of the profession. In order to move from one discipline to another, to change your perspective, you need to learn a whole new language, to develop a different kind of intuition, sums up Tesche her principles of scientific mobility.

After finishing her PhD in physics in 1979, Tesche moved to IBM to further her work on direct current SQUIDs, the quantum mechanical magnetometers used in magnetoencephalography (MEG). In 1984 she embarked on a joint research project between IBM and the Low Temperature Laboratory to build multi-channel MEG brain scanners at the Helsinki University of Technology, now part of Aalto University and called O.V. Lounasmaa Laboratory after its founder, director and figurehead.

After what turned out to be a prominent eight-year spell in the O.V. Lounasmaa Laboratory working on MEG data and methodology in the 1990’s, Tesche accepted a psychology professorship at the University of New Mexico.

– I hadn’t taken a course in psychology in my life! I really know most of what I know about neuroscience and neuroanatomy by teaching my students, having had to keep myself one step ahead of them. That’s what science is, constantly teaching yourself and learning, accumulating new knowledge, Tesche ponders.

With the MEG methodology Tesche had developed at IBM and Aalto University, she moved on to study the inner parts of the brain – the hippocampus and the cerebellum – and brain plasticity and also their role in various disorders, such as schizophrenia and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

How to play “the music of the brain”?

Tesche’s current interest and expertise is in transcranial stimulation, a non-invasive methodology to induce activity in the brain using weak electrical currents and magnetic fields.

– A big discovery for the MEG community has been that the brain oscillates: there are different frequencies of oscillation and connections between them – a kind of music in the brain. If we learn about that music using MEG, we can, in a sense, crack the code and try to replicate the oscillations with external stimulation.

Tesche is excited about the promise transcranial stimulation research holds for clinical treatment.

– By playing the music of the brain back into the brain, we could induce plasticity in the brain, accelerate learning and treat various disorders. This will be a whole new way of interacting with the brain, potentially much more specific than drugs, and a lot cheaper than surgery.

Making the impossible possible at O.V. Lounasmaa Laboratory

Taking a quantum leap from physics to brain research and psychology is not at all uncommon in the O.V. Lounasmaa Laboratory in Aalto University. The focus of the laboratory, and many of the researchers there, expanded in the 1980s from low temperature physics to discovering the inner workings of the human brain. When Tesche came to work at the laboratory in 1991, the first whole-head multi-channel MEG scanner using the IBM SQUIDs was nearing completion.

– Professor Riitta Hari and her group have been key in building the credibility of the field. They did a lot of high quality work and published extensively. Also the training in the lab was excellent and helped to develop MEG methodology: many researchers who visited the lab brought their new knowledge of MEG back to their home universities.

– It was a liberating experience: not knowing much about neuroscience, having no preconceived ideas and not initially knowing what to do with all the wiggly lines in MEG signal data. I wasn’t aware that it was supposed to be impossible to reach the hippocampus or the cerebellum.

Tesche praises the laboratory’s late director, Academician Olli V. Lounasmaa for envisioning beyond dogmatic limits of what could be done – and also instilling the same spirit into his group.

– Lounasmaa was probably the best scientific manager I have ever met. The level of attention to detail and competence really impressed me. You really have to try to make the impossible possible. To just do it. To just keep going.

– Being a bit ignorant of course helps too, Tesche laughs.

 

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