Interdisciplinary approach benefits brain research
How do practice and theory reinforce one another in neuroscience? Professor Birte Forstmann’s inaugural lecture on 2 October will be about building interdisciplinary bridges between cognitive neuroscience and cognitive models. Her approach may lead to brain research with fewer side-effects for patients.
Forstmann was appointed to the special LUF chair in 'Neuroscientific testing of psychological models’ in June 2014. ‘I study decision-making processes. I look at which areas in the brain are active when people take a decision. That could be something as simple as the choice between an apple and an orange. Everyone reaches a choice in his or her own, individual way.’
The research is largely fundamental, but there is also a practical application in view. People suffering from Parkinson’s disease are sometimes treated using deep brain stimulation. This involves placing one or two electrodes deep in the brain so that electrical impulses are able to activate particular brain areas. Forstmann’s research may contribute to determining the exact point in the brain for this intervention, so that side-effects can be kept to a minimum.
Forstmann’s approach is interdisciplinary. She uses both mathematical and descriptive cognitive models as techniques for MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Brain scans are made of the test subjects using fMRI, EEG or the relatively new technique of the 7 Tesla MRI, or high-field MRI. These scanners show the networks in the brain that are active when decisions are taken. Forstmann stresses the advantages of the interdisciplinary nature of the research: ‘One discipline describes and predicts, the other measures the processes. By combining the two, you get really strong results.’
The LUF chair is intended to further develop MRI research on the brain. Forstmann, who also has an appointment as professor at the University of Amsterdam, aims to work intensively with her Leiden colleagues at the Institute of Psychology. ‘Leiden has a strong international reputation in brain research,’ Forstman emphasises. 'The first joint grant application has already been submitted to NWO, and we’re working on further ideas, including plans for shared PhD appointments.'
The 7 Tesla MRI at the C.J. Gorter Center for High-field MRI in the LUMC will play a major role in Forstmann’s research. ‘There’s already a lot of expertise in high-field MRI. It’s also a great advantage that the Gorter Center is attached to the LUMC, and that we have access to a clinical population.’ Forstmann expects that her colleagues at the MRI Spinoza Centre at the UvA will be able to benefit from the Leiden expertise. ‘In effect, both centres will be mutually supporting. The distance between Leiden and Amsterdam may be fifty kilometres, but I hope that the distance between the disciplines will be much shorter.’
(30 September 2015)