Academician Riitta Hari: In search of new perspectives on the human mind

Academy Professor Riitta Hari, newly appointed as Academician of Science, is an internationally recognised and respected neuroscientist. She has developed methods and applications of human brain imaging and thereby contributed decisively to the progress of this branch of science. Riitta Hari’s current focus is on the brain basis of social interaction – and once again she is blazing the trail.

Riitta Hari was appointed as Academician of Science on 29 November 2010. Director of the Brain Research Unit, Low Temperature Laboratory at Aalto University School of Science and Technology, Riitta Hari and her team are widely known for their long-standing work in developing magnetoencephalography (MEG) and its applications.

MEG picks up the weak magnetic fields of the brain, providing information about brain processing with millisecond resolution. The results have multiple applications in basic research, but also in the diagnostics and follow-up of brain diseases.

From physics laboratory to clinical diagnostics

“In my first year at med school, I went straight to the department of physiology to search for brain-related teaching or research. I was soon given my own desk, but at the time no supervision was available,” Riitta Hari says. She graduated as Doctor of Medical Science from the University of Helsinki in 1980.

At the time that she was finalising her doctoral thesis, Riitta Hari got into contact with the cardiomagnetism team of Associate Professor Toivo Katila at Helsinki University of Technology, and started to use for brain research their single-channel magnetometer.

Her science career really started to get off the ground when she was invited by Professor Olli V. Lounasmaa, the charismatic director of the Low Temperature Laboratory, to direct the lab’s “Brain Group” in 1982. Having just completed her specialist training and received an appointment to a junior fellowship from the Academy of Finland, Riitta Hari felt she was in the position to resign from her permanent hospital post and pursue her research interests full-time.

Academician Lounasmaa and Riitta Hari had extremely productive collaboration: Hari concentrated on her brain research and Lounasmaa supervised the development of new-generation neuromagnetometers.

“Initially our research focused very much on MEG, because all we had was this one method,” Riitta Hari says. “We therefore broadened the scope of our investigations so that over time we were able to build up a coherent view of brain function – much more so than would’ve been possible by concentrating on one area of the brain only or on one specific phenomenon, which is what many other teams were doing.”

Hari’s team was therefore well placed and prepared to take on the challenges of the 1990s, declared by the US Senate as the Decade of the Brain. Around the world substantial investment was poured into brain imaging, attracting large numbers of scientists into the field and boosting knowledge and understanding.

“We definitely benefited from this boom and did our bit to make it happen. Imaging of the human brain has deeply affected current views of the relationship between behaviour and brain function. With the phenomenal advances in measurement techniques and analysis tools, brain imaging laboratories have become meeting places for scientists interested in human brain and mind,” Riitta Hari explains.

From brain to mind

For the past decade or so, Riitta Hari has led us towards a deeper understanding of the human mind through the use of increasingly real-life-like experimental settings.

Her ultimate ambition is “two-person neuroscience”, i.e. the simultaneous examination of two individuals’ brains: this would shed crucial light on the brain basis of social interaction.

“As our brains are very strongly shaped by other people, I’m convinced that this is the direction we should pursue to gain a better understanding of the human mind. The dyad of two people is a more meaningful unit of analysis for the study of the human mind than is an isolated individual.”

Moving towards more natural experimental settings is also one of the central goals in the aivoAALTO project jointly undertaken by the three schools of Aalto University. One focus area is the study of the effects of film on the human mind.

“Great movie directors have lots of important information about the workings of the human mind. For us this is a useful intermediate step in moving from strictly controlled experimental settings to real everyday interaction situations. For instance, comparing several persons’ brain activity during movie viewing will give insight into how similarly people perceive their world,” Riitta Hari says.

She describes her research as a challenging, high-risk endeavour with a shaky foundation: it is an ongoing process of simultaneously developing new experimental settings, equipment, concepts and signal analysis.

“To make sure we always have some grounding to fall back on, we usually pursue two lines of research at the same time: some of our projects comprise more traditional research of sensory and motor functions.”

The results from this research are also expected to provide new clues on how to fix a damaged brain or a broken mind.

Strength from cooperation and new findings

Riitta Hari has collaborated with scientists of very different backgrounds, from mathematics to the humanities. This is also reflected in her list of publications, which includes 285 refereed international publications and 70 international review articles and book chapters. She has supervised the doctoral dissertations of 34 students in the fields of medicine, neuroscience, physics and psychology.

“When you’re surrounded by scholars of different ages and different backgrounds, all of them with a burning desire to understand the human brain and mind, you’re bound to come up with something new and interesting. Unexpected findings and good-spirited and thought-provoking discussions, which every now and then go down some curious paths, are a real source of inspiration and strength that helps overcome obstacles that often stand in our way.”

Riitta Hari prefers to keep out of the public limelight. Indeed, in the Register of Finnish Physicians, she says her favourite hobby is living a reclusive life.

“But since our research is funded from public sources, we are obviously obliged to tell about our findings to the general public,” she adds.

Riitta Hari says she is genuinely surprised but grateful for her appointment as Academician. She considers it a recognition not so much for herself as for neuroscience and brain imaging in general, and hopes that it will bring well-deserved attention to this field.

Achievements and recognitions

Riitta Hari has recently started her third five-year term as Academy Professor (2010–2014). She also directs the Finnish Centre of Excellence on Systems Neuroscience and Neuroimaging Research.

The list of recognitions offered to Riitta Hari includes an honorary doctorate from the University of Lisbon in 2003, the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine in 2003, the Advancement of European Science Award in 1987, membership of the US National Academy of Science from 2004 and the Finnish Science Award in 2009, an honorary doctorate from the University of Kuopio in 2005 and the Matti Äyräpää Award in 2001.

Text: Paula Böhling

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