Petri Ala-Laurila: The retina offers a pathway to the secrets of the brain

This Professor, awarded for his scientific courage, knows that it’s worth going after the big “fish” even if you don’t always catch it.

Petri Ala-Laurila received the 2014 Academy Award for scientific boldness. The Academy of Finland awards the prize to researchers who have shown exceptional scientific boldness, creativity or open-mindedness in their work. Photo: Anni Hanén

Professor Petri Ala-Laurila, what do you research and why?

I am a neuroscientist and I study those neural mechanisms that define the ultimate limits of sensory signal processing. The central focus of our research is the retina of the eye. It is an efficient part of the brain, which carries out many complex neural computations much before the visual information is sent to the brain via the optic nerve.

The eye is able to recognise signals originating from a small number photons. This remarkable performance arises from the efficient noise filtering mechanisms taking place already in the neural circuits of the retina. At the sensitivity limit of vision, we can recognise the entire neural circuit  which transmits visual signals through the retina. This offers a unique opportunity to discover the detailed dynamics of neural circuit function. The retina is in many ways an ideal brain preparation. Its organized structure allows easy access compared to many other brain regions, and light can be used as its natural stimulus.  Our ultimate goal is to link the retinal computations in visual tasks to the performance of the entire visual system as measured in visually-guided behavioural experiments. To do so, we rely on a unique battery of state-of-the-art technologies that we have developed in our lab.

Even though non-invasive brain imaging techniques have improved significantly, they cannot tell us what an individual nerve impulse does to an individual cell. These techniques are, of course, extremely useful for many other things. However, our goals relate to high-resolution understanding of brain signalling. The ultimate resolution is to understand how the behavioural performance of an animal relate to the action potentials originating from the response or retinal circuits to individual photons. This project, which we have named ‘quantum behaviour’, is the most ambitious of our current research projects. If we are able to precisely calculate how biological decision-making is connected to the information provided by individual light quanta, we will have taken a ‘quantum leap’ in the resolution of understanding the brain’s decision-making process. In the future, it would be fascinating also to try to understand to which extent the key dynamics of biological decision making relates to the most advanced man-made approaches including artificial intelligence. Furthermore, once we learn to understand the signal processing operations of healthy retinas, we will eventually also be able to find more efficient new therapies for eye diseases that result from retinal malfunction.

How did you become a researcher?

I have always loved nature and wanted to understand phenomena at a deeper level. During my studies, I got the chance to do a summer job in a biophysics laboratory, and that’s where my research career truly began. After completing my PhD in Engineering Physics, I searched for the most promising postdoctoral options in the USA and spent four years in Boston and then another four in Seattle in some of the best labs of the world in my research direction. During my PhD work, and most of all during my time in the USA, I established the technical expertise upon which my research program in Finland is based. Recently we have, of course, combined these tools with those unique once developed in our own lab.

What have been the highlights of your career?

On one hand, they have been miraculous flashes of inspiration, when you have suddenly understood clearly something upon which you have been working on for a long time. On the other hand, sometimes being successful to find totally new things by experimentation can be insanely rewarding. Operating at the outer limits of knowledge is totally fascinating, although it can also take all of your capacity.

The last article in my PhD thesis was cantered on a long-standing theoretical problem. On a particular night, the last piece of the modelling process fell into place, and I suddenly realised how the problem could be solved. I still remember how wonderful it felt to stay up that night and know that I was perhaps the only person in the world at that point who had the answer. Nowadays, the most fantastic thing is to see my own students develop and rise to the next level. In science, mentoring and education of young talent, and creating an excellent training culture should be made a central assessment criterion. Fundamentally, we are always standing on the shoulders of our mentors and if we choose them well, on the shoulders of “giants”. That was also the case in my PhD and postdoc times. I have been extremely lucky to have been working with some of the best people throughout my career.

What is required from a researcher?

In addition to passion and curiosity, one needs persistence and above all such a great love for one’s work that you do not give up even when things do not work out the way you want. Many experiments fail. The key is to see beyond failure. In the game of science, you need to keep believing that new opportunities always open up again when you follow your passion and curiosity.

My favourite hobby is fly fishing for wild Atlantic salmon. It is another activity where you must patiently develop your own skills and appreciation for being in nature. If you were to catch too many big salmons easily, the excitement would be actually less. The success feels more significant when the challenge is high.

 A researcher should also help others and provide their skills and knowledge selflessly for the use of t the whole science community. In this way, unexpected and promising further research is often born. Helping others can also create important contacts and strengthen networks. Unexpected opportunities arise from these positive interactions.

What do you expect from the future?

I look forward to expand the research direction. I have been lucky to find excellent young researchers join my research group and to have been able to work with splendid senior researchers during the training stage of my career in both Finland and in the US. My current research group is a bit like a tribe in which each person has their own role and goals that they are aiming for, but there is also a common objective: to continue in Finland the research tradition of Nobel Prize winner Ragnar Granit and to create a new renaissance in the retina research in Finland together with the Finnish vision research community. I want to be one of the driving forces of this goal. We are still a young laboratory, but have already achieved great things. For example, our group has already equipped two laboratories – one at Aalto University and one at University of Helsinki. – with state-of-the-art technology to study retinal circuits and visually-guided behaviour. A year from now we will be hosting in Helsinki one of the top conferences for our field: the European Retina Meeting 2019. In addition, we have constructed at our Aalto University laboratory the first four-electrode patch-clamp measurement technology to study the retinal circuits of the mammalian retina. But this is all just a beginning. Much more is to come!

Petri Ala-Laurila and Aalto University’s other newly tenured professors will speak about their research at an event to be held 25 April in Dipoli, Espoo. You are very welcome to come and listen to them and ask more about their research!

The event begins at 14.15. Check the program and details here.


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