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Risto Ilmoniemi: The most important thing is having confidence that others will be there to support and help when needed

In this Walk in my shoes interview, Aalto Professor Risto Ilmoniemi talks about new brain technology, his team, work as a professor and interest in the fundamental questions of natural sciences. You can also watch a video of a coffee break with Ilmoniemi and the team.
Risto Ilmoniemi, photo by: Hayley Le
Photos: Hayley Le

Risto Ilmoniemi, you and your team are developing algorithm-driven transcranial magnetic stimulation. When will the new technology be in clinical use?

We have already performed simple algorithm-driven stimulations with the world’s first multi-locus transcranial magnetic stimulation device, which was developed at Aalto University. However, later on we want to automate the device further. This means that stimulations depend on how the brain reacts. For instance, the algorithm electronically changes the location of the stimulation without the need to move the device itself. Later on, we will automate the system so that, as the treatment progresses, the rhythms and targets of the pulse sequences are changed depending on how the patient’s neuronal networks react and adapt. The procedure could be called brain massage.

It will take years before the device is fully developed and ready for treating patients. I think that the real breakthrough of this new technology will take place only in the 2030s.

Who can benefit from the new technology?

More than half a million people commit suicide because of depression every year. Often, magnetic stimulation makes such thoughts disappear. It seems that many depressed people have reduced activity in the left frontal lobe. But even if we know which brain areas are involved, that doesn't tell us what depression is. There is still no good understanding of what mood, thoughts or feelings mean in terms of the details of brain activity.

We are also interested in addictions, such as drug dependence or gambling disorder. Magnetic stimulation is used also to treat chronic pain.

What do you consider the most important element in your team’s culture?

The most important thing is confidence in that others will be there to support you and help when needed. However, team spirit is never perfect. There can also be conflicts between people. In a workplace, issues should be addressed when they are still small. Sometimes a conflict can start from a minor misunderstanding. Someone may mean well, but it's not understood that way; the problem can escalate and become serious. The key is that people shouldn't keep their problems to themselves but should address them immediately. Younger researchers may not always be courageous enough to come forward. It requires trust.

What traditions do you have in your research team?

Before Covid, we always had coffee together at 10 am in the coffee room. Only this winter we have started this tradition again, and now we meet in the afternoons. We have coffee, and we celebrate it with cake or buns if someone has won a grant or got a publication approved.

How does it feel to walk in Risto Ilmoniemi's shoes? 

I'm not usually interested in knowing what's going to happen tomorrow. And I don't want an easy life, because it would not be interesting. Sometimes there have to be storms, snow and slush. For example, we were recently skiing in the Alps. One day, there was a terrible fog, and I was the only one who went out in the bad weather. I went by myself for dozens of kilometres. It was not easy and not particularly enjoyable as the snow hit my face and I couldn't see much of anything. But it would we rather boring to live in eternal sunshine.

What's it like to be a professor?

This is a very interesting and in a good way crazy working environment. As a professor doing research, you are supposed to decide youself what you want to do. The Dean, the Head of the Department or the President of the University will not say what you should do. Yes, the university has metrics: you are expected to create new knowledge and new understanding and publish the results. That's where creativity comes in. It's a bit like going into the blueberry forest. You don't always know in advance where the berries are. You just go wandering around and then by chance you may find them. Or you find something else.

It’s quite special to be a university professor. We’re supposed to teach and do research, but we also have to do a lot of administrative work. If too much time is spent with administrative stuff and bureaucracy, there are less opportunities to do good science and provide excellent teaching.

Research gives me the opportunity to express myself by inventing or writing. I sometimes compare it to drawing something as a child with my modest skills and showing it to my mother. At work, I make something small and show it to other researchers. The feeling is the same as when I was a child.

But sometimes I feel that I've not really accomplished anything. I have thought many times that I am going to give up the whole thing: this is not going to work. But I recover quickly: often already on the next day, optimism is reborn.

A good thing about being a professor is that you have to teach. Even if the research fails, you can still teach. After all, that's what university is all about. If the students succeed, then I don't have to be disappointed with my work. It is a privilege and great pleasure to be able to work with motivated students, excellent researchers and the rest of the personnel.

Risto Ilmoniemi, photo by Hayley Le.

What interests you most at the moment?

Sometimes I watch films, borrow books, or go to an art exhibition, trying to understand the human being behind the work. But often when I read, my mind wanders. I don’t have a very good memory. Fortunately, when studying physics and mathematics, I don't need to remember too much. More important than rote learning is to understand things and to be able to do the math.  If you start exploring a research area without really knowing what has been done before, it's easier to be creative, because you are not burdened by the old way of thinking.

I’m even more interested in the brain than in technology, although we have mainly developed devices and methods. I am particularly inspired by difficult but simple questions, such as the mystery of consciousness. But many scientists consider this question pointless, because it may never be understood.

What do you think about consciousness then?

The stereotypical physicist thinks, as I do, that the universe works according to the laws of physics. Particles bounce around also in the brain according to textbook formulas. But this does not explain consciousness, i.e., why a system or matter feels it exists. That's the hard problem of consciousness.

There are other wondrous things in this universe. Why do things like electrons, or anything at all, exist? We can come up with different explanations, such as that we are characters in a computer game developed by some higher being. But there is no evidence for the deepest things. I'm interested in everything, but in science you would get more done by focusing on one area. On the other hand, the restless mind can bring new perspectives into research and sometimes surprising possibilities for creative solutions.

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Walk in my shoes

Inspired by the saying that you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand them, the ‘Walk in my shoes’ series aims to share some of the experiences, thoughts, perspectives and challenges faced by another Aaltonian.

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