17.08.2021 change 17.08.2021

Brain researcher tells Science in Poland ‘many mental problems result from the lack of understanding about how the mind works’

Credit: Anna Bielawiec-Osińska/ www.umk.pl Credit: Anna Bielawiec-Osińska/ www.umk.pl

An award-winning researcher into the human mind says we still have much to learn about how the brain works, and that many psychiatric problems that we see in society are associated with this lack of understanding.

Talking about her work at the Next Generation Science section of a meeting of Lindau Laureate Nobel Prize winners, Karolina Finc said she hoped her research “will contribute to a better understanding of how our minds work.”

PAP - Science in Poland: What did you talk about during the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting?

Karolina Finc: The theme of my speech was to show the listeners that our brain's network is constantly changing during the experience, and the current research tools allow us to watch these dynamic changes.

SiP: How can we do that?

KF: To analyse the human brain network, I use tools taken from network science, which is a very young field combining the theory of graphs, statistics and computer science. Network science provides us with tools for a mathematical description of complex interactions in our world. Each such complex interaction network can be presented in the form of a graph, which consists of basic network elements (called nodes) and connections between them. Thanks to this description, we can use the same tools for the analysis of social networks, networks of links in ecosystems and networks in the human brain. Interestingly, all these networks have many common properties, they are self-organizing and the individual functions of the system 'emerge' on the basis of multi-level interactions occurring between basic units of the system. In the human brain, neurons may be such basic units, while in ant colonies these are ants. A study of a single neuron or a single ant does not tell us much about the functioning of the entire system in which they are nested. I believe that looking at the brain as a complex network of interactions, discovering the principles that these interactions rule, can bring us closer to a better understanding of how our daily experience is shaped.

SiP: What were the Nobel laureates and young scientists listening your presentation particularly interested in?

KF: After the presentation there was only a short moment for questions, only later there was the possibility of a longer conversation in specially prepared virtual rooms. Questions were very diverse and in my case they were asked only by young scientists. The listeners wanted to know, for example, whether my research could be used in the design of artificial neural networks. In fact, this topic is currently strongly explored in artificial intelligence research. Modern neural networks are often designed to resemble biological networks. There was also an interest in processes, in which our attention is directed inward, for example in a meditative state or when our thoughts wander. Recent research suggests that these are very important states for our learning and integration of information.

SiP: Which topics dominated this year's forum of the exchange of thoughts between the Nobel Prize winners and young scientists?

KF: There was a very broad range of discussion topics, from strictly research topics to social topics concerning the future of science and education. In the evenings there were discussions of Nobel laureates with young scientists - I liked that part the most. Every young scientist could 'enter' a virtual stage and talk to a Nobel Prize winner. I managed to talk to Professor Barry Barish, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for a decisive contribution to the LIGO detector and observing gravitational waves, and Professor Saul Perlmutter, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discoveries concerning the expansion of the Universe. We talked, among other things, about the mental health crisis among young scientists and what could be done so that the academic system provided a good environment for creative work, and the role of teaching philosophy in shaping critical thinking. During the discussion Barry Barish touched an important topic: we must remember that everyone can be a scientist and a scientific title is not needed at all. The most important thing is that our curiosity and creativity should not be limited by rigid structures and requirements. This thought stuck in my memory, because I value freedom in both science and life. Only with freedom and openness, we are able to best fulfil our potential.

SiP: You study the brain. Why did you choose this area of scientific research?

KF: Interest in the subject of the human psyche appeared quite early in my life, I think at the beginning of high school. Mathematics was also important for me, in high school I attended a class with a mathematics and computer science profile. Then I became interested in biology, so I was the only one in my class to take an advanced biology high school exit exam. The choice of studies was very difficult for me. I had a dilemma between biotechnology and psychology. In biotechnology, I would miss psychology and vice versa. I found out about the new course at the Nicolaus Copernicus University, which was called cognitive science. After reading more about that course, I knew immediately that it was exactly what I was looking for. Cognitive science integrates knowledge from many disciplines dealing with human cognition. These disciplines include psychology, neurobiology, linguistics, philosophy and computer science. Quite early during the studies, I became interested in the plasticity of the brain, because I was always very fascinated by the learning process. Later, I started looking for tools that would allow to explore this plasticity, until finally I started to learn neuroimaging and data analysis.

SiP: What does the work of the human brain look like? What happens in the brain every day? During learning, work, rest, sports?

KF: Our brains are constantly changing during each activity. While the anatomical connections in the brain are relatively stable and they change at a small pace and to a small extent, the activity of neurons in our brain is constantly changing. I think that in this context you can easily quote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: in our brains 'everything flows' and it is never the same. It is amazing that during these constant changes we still have a sense of continuity of our lives.

SiP: Does our knowledge on this topic increase?

KF: Thanks to increasingly advanced technologies of human brain imaging, as well as advanced methods of data analysis, we understand more and more.

SiP: What do we still not know about the brain, and we would like to?

KF: In my opinion, we know at most a thousandth of what we would like to know about the brain. We still do not understand the mechanisms of the simplest nervous systems (for example the C. elegans nervous system). We do not understand the basic mechanisms of learning and creating models of the world around us. We do not understand the biological mechanisms that generate dynamic changes in brain activity. We do not understand the role of sleep and dreams, nor the role of unconscious processes in our lives. We do not know what are the sources of mental disorders are. The list goes on. Of course, scientists continue to deliver results that bring us closer to understanding, but we are still far from formulating solid theories.

SiP: How can this knowledge be used?

KF: I think that each new, reliable piece of knowledge on this topic can contribute to a better understanding of ourselves, as well as a better understanding of the reality that surrounds us. It can also be used to design modern educational programs, so that the effect of education is building an open, creative and conscious society. It can contribute to reducing the global mental health crisis. I believe that many mental problems that we observe in society are associated with the lack of understanding of how our minds work.

SiP: The complexity of the human brain is enormous. You pursue network neuroscience focusing on the study of a complex connection network in a human brain using mathematical algorithms taken from the theory of graphs. What exactly does it involve?

KC: The graph theory provides us with tools to describe very complex interaction networks. the human brain is an example of such a network, it consists of about 86 billion neurons, where each neuron has thousands of synaptic connections. The complexity of this system is enormous. The dynamically growing network neuroscience allows to use tools taken from the graph theory to capture this complexity, just like we do when analysing social networks. To start such an analysis, it is necessary to define the network in the form of a graph, composed of basic units (neuron or brain area) and connections between them (synapse, neuron pathway, measure of similarity of activity between areas). We are not capable of studying individual neurons in a living human brain, so the brain regions are defined on the basis of special atlases. Such networks are then described by the available graph theory methods - we can, for example, designate basic modules (called communities) of the network that can be associated with a common role of certain areas. We can also set key areas of the network, i.e. those that have a lot of connections with other areas.

Such studies allow us to look at the brain as a whole, and not as a collection of isolated parts. In practice, everything in the brain is interdependent and it is very difficult to explore causal relationships in such a complex system. I believe that looking at the brain in this way can contribute to a better understanding of our fascinating minds.

SiP: What happens in a human brain during cognitive training with a high degree of difficulty? How does it look like?

KF: During difficult cognitive tasks, the functional network of our brain becomes more integrated. Although such integration is expensive, it allows for efficient use of computational resources in individual areas of the brain, which is necessary when facing a large cognitive challenge. In our study, the subjects trained for 6 weeks doing a very difficult task involving the operational memory, which consisted in storing several visual and auditory elements in memory. At the beginning, this task seemed impossible to our subjects, but after 6 weeks of training, the task was no longer difficult. It turns out that as a result of such an intense training, strong integration between the brain networks is no longer needed, and the task is made largely without effort. We face challenges of this type every day, for example when we learn programming or to play an instrument.

SiP: Does the human brain regenerate and how?

KF: The human brain is extremely plastic. Following a damage, after some time healthy brain areas are able to take over the function of the damaged areas. There are cases of people who, due to very strong epileptic seizures, had the entire hemisphere of the brain removed in early childhood. Thanks to this unusual neuroplasticity, such people can successfully function in society.

SiP: What ideas for further research do you have?

KF: I have a lot ideas. After returning to Poland from my post-doctoral fellowship in Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, I plan to set up a new research group that will focus on network geometry and dynamics and network reorganization processes during cognition, learning and creativity. I want to explore these issues with the greatest scientific rigor, in collaboration with people from various disciplines and environments.

SiP: What is your scientific dream?

KF: To make a discovery that will significantly contribute to improving human well-being.

Thank you.

PAP - Science in Poland, Anna Mikołajczyk-Kłębek

Dr Karolina Finc is the leader of the Computational Neuroimaging Team at the Centre for Modern Interdisciplinary Technologies of the Nicolaus Copernicus University, she belongs to the Neuroinformatics group at the Centre of Excellence 'Dynamics, mathematical analysis and artificial intelligence' (neuroinformatics team, leader: Professor Włodzisław Duch). She graduated from Cognitive Science at the Nicolaus Copernicus University, completed her doctorate at the Centre for Modern Interdisciplinary Technologies, and defended it at the Faculty of Physics, Astronomy and Applied Computer Science.

She is a laureate and beneficiary of numerous competitions, scholarships and grants for young researchers, not only the START programme (2018) of the Foundation for Polish Science, extended with Professor Barbara Skarga Scholarship for scientists whose research is distinguished by boldly crossing boundaries among various fields of science, opening new research perspectives, and creating new values in science, but also Prelude (2016) and Etiuda (2017) grants funded by the National Science Centre.

In 2014, she was a fellow at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin (supervisor: Simone Kühn), in 2018 at the University of Pennsylvania (supervisor: Danielle Bassett), and in 2019 at the University of Stanford (supervisor: Russell Poldrack). Currently, she is a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin (supervisor: Nicolas Schuck).

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