Kai Kaila – breaking down the barriers between disciplines

5 Sep 2019

A three-term Academy Professor, Kai Kaila is Finland’s leading veteran neurobiologist. Based at the Laboratory of Neurobiology at Viikki Biocentre in Helsinki, which conducts wide-ranging research in fields from physics to medicine and psychology, Kaila is the most cited neurobiology researcher in Finland.

One key attribute of a successful research scientist, Kaila says, is the ability to spot research questions others can’t see. He himself has always seen exciting things around him, ever since he was a child. He realized from early on that one day, he would become a researcher.

Kaila was admitted as a student to the University of Helsinki Department of Animal Physiology, but was surprised to find that it offered no courses on neurobiology. From the outset he began to venture into neighbouring disciplines and to study neurobiology largely on his own. He even built his first electrophysiological research instruments with his own hands. “It’s a great learning curve to build your own measurement tools. And the tough beginnings taught you how to think and act independently.”

During the work he undertook for his master’s thesis, Kaila became the first in Finland to successfully measure intracellular nerve impulses using a self-made amplifier. The FET transistors and other components he used to build the amplifier cost the university the equivalent of 30 euros in today’s money.

Could the number of professors trained serve as a new measure of success?

Nowadays the sums of money dealt with at the Laboratory of Neurobiology that Kaila and Juha Voipio founded in the early 1980s (https://www.helsinki.fi/en/researchgroups/laboratory-of-neurobiology) are on a different scale altogether. One good indication of the laboratory’s current level and funding is provided by Kaila’s three terms as Academy Professor and the soon-ending ERC Advanced Grant.

Just 20 years ago, Kaila could hardly have dreamt of the kind of equipment or the molecular biological and electrophysiological methods that he is using today. Juha Voipio was the first student he recruited into his laboratory in 1982. Now, Voipio has been a professor for 16 years.

“Apart from the quality and number of scientific publications and other similar indices, I think another useful measure of the success of senior researchers could be the number of professors they have trained. I have five to my credit and still expect to see a couple more.”

In the late 1970s the overriding emphasis in Finnish science was on practical applications and benefits, and Kaila too had to move towards applied research. He began to explore the effects of environmental toxins on the nervous system.

“This produced some highly interesting new results on nerve cell mitochondria and cellular membranes. And because the toxins I was studying were changing the motor functions of laboratory animals, I happened upon an intriguing research topic: How are the ‘motor tunes’ that control movements created in the central nervous system. We now refer to ‘motor programs’, but it’s the same idea.”

In 1985 Kaila moved to the University of Oxford for a year to teach the know-how developed at his laboratory in the intracellular measurement of ions, electrically charged particles.

At Oxford, Kaila’s research focus was to study cardiac cells. It was also during his year in Oxford that Kaila got his big idea about the completely novel electrophysical property of GABA, the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the nervous system. His article in Nature in 1987 generated large numbers of subsequent studies.

This article was also largely responsible for the growth of Kaila’s research team. He soon had a team of 15 who had increasing international contacts. The research focus shifted to the development of the nervous system and eventually to broader issues such as brain damage from complications during labour.

“I’m scientifically restless”

The reason why Kaila’s neurobiology research team cover such a broad range of subjects comes down to Kaila himself. He jokingly describes himself as a scientific ADHD case.  

“I’m intrigued by anything and everything that’s science. The wider the terrain you cover, the easier it is to find new and significant connections between seemingly disparate phenomena. You can easily contrast this with, say, medical diagnostics and its constant pursuit of greater accuracy, in which rigid pigeonholes present a clear obstacle to understanding psychiatric and brain disorders and to developing new treatments.”

“When I was a student I read lots of stuff that was outside the curriculum. Biology, engineering and the humanities. When you’re analysing the results of electrophysiological experiments or brain imaging tests, for instance, it’s important to understand the physical principles of the equipment you’re using. I’m still interested in everything and preach about the importance of multidisciplinarity in my lectures.”

Kaila is also keen to stress the importance of quantitative acquisition of knowledge. Nowadays some university pedagogues take the view that the ability of rapid knowledge acquisition is more important than the ability to grasp and recollect broad and complex issues or details.

“In biology this is not a fruitful attitude. One of the most important assets of the biosciences researcher is the amount of knowledge possessed at any moment in time. This is the only way to make new connections in the brain and to come up with genuinely new innovations. It’s the same with multidisciplinarity: that doesn’t happen just by bringing together scientists from different disciplines. It’s necessary to have a common language, and that means each researcher must have an in-depth knowledge of disciplines outside their own area.”

In fact, Kaila says the traditional boundaries between disciplines should be broken down. Brain research, he says, is a prime example of how different disciplines are just historical compartments.

“This is a huge challenge for traditional university education. Unfortunately that is becoming more and more like school education now, even at the doctoral stage. It’s hard to imagine any of the early twentieth century physicist geniuses being trained in or drawing their inspiration from today’s heavily regulated graduate schools or doctoral programmes.”

Another boundary that annoys Kaila is the line running between research and practice. Recently he has been trying to export his research results into the field of medicine, hoping to be able to improve practices related to birth asphyxia. At birth, the newborn switches over from breathing through the placenta to using their own lungs, causing a brief interruption in the exchange of gases, but in normal circumstances this has no adverse effects.

Kaila says that the medications used to prevent seizures in birth asphyxia have no scientific foundation. “But introducing new ideas in medical practice requires a huge amount of time and effort, and in fact is often virtually impossible even when you have sound scientific evidence.”

There is strong evidence that birth asphyxia can have lifelong psychiatric and neurological consequences that might at least partly be preventable with new treatments. Kaila is distressed to observe that medicine does not invest heavily enough in the treatment of newborns or in the development of new therapies simply because this line of research does not generate sufficient profit for big pharma or for medical equipment manufacturers.

Kaila is fascinated by birth in general, and he has worked to promote and expand public debate on the subject. He recently collaborated with a multidisciplinary group to write an article on the effects of poverty on child development for Helsingin Sanomat.

“In Finland we have some one hundred thousand children living in poverty. Child poverty can often trigger major changes in brain development and function. Prenatal stress signals reprogram the brain. If the expecting mother is under high stress, the child in the womb will receive hormonal signals that prepare them for a hostile or otherwise adverse environment. Just as in the case of birth asphyxia, this may have lifelong adverse effects on the child’s psychological and so-called somatic development and health.”

The underlying mechanisms are the same as in the case of famine, for instance: in response to the mother’s malnutrition, the unborn child will also prepare itself to face hunger.

“As a result of the mother’s experiences of stress, the child’s insulin production is weak, which predicts early chronic morbidity and even premature death. The reduced lifespan often involves early puberty and teenage pregnancies. The foundations of the sociology of health and global morbidity should definitely be compulsory reading for all biosciences and medical students. This would be particularly important in today’s world where no state is immune to the new emerging global challenges such as mass movements of people."

The brain is involved in everything

Brain research, Kaila says, is living an incredible moment. “We’re gradually understanding how electrical brain activity, the immune system within the brain and intestinal bacteria together constitute a compact complex of signals. Brain research without an understanding of other physiology is like doing astronomy and cosmology based on what you can see with the naked eye and leaving out everything else.”

Brain research is constantly producing work that is aimed at advancing the treatment of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s by direct intervention in the operation of neural networks.

For instance, it’s now possible to place three electrodes on the scalp and to use them to generate electrical fields whose point of impact within the brain can be determined by triangulation. High frequency waves pass through brain tissue without affecting nerve cells, but lower frequency cross-waves that stimulate cells can be targeted very accurately. It is expected that in the near future, this will pave the way to new treatments of dementias, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and anxiety, for instance.

“I don’t believe that oral medications are the best way to treat psychiatric and neurological disorders and illnesses. This is confirmed by the statistics: in many common psychiatric and brain disorders just one in six people who receive medication benefit from the treatment. In some cases the ratio is no more than one in twenty.”

Kaila says it’s a constant source of amazement to him why the pharmaceutical industry is viewed in terms of its financial performance rather than the effectiveness of its medications. Ultimately more accurate diagnoses of diseases and disorders would first and foremost benefit the industry.

Thank goodness for the university

Kaila has given much thought to the social impact of his work, which is a typical example of how academic research and universities can have many benefits that cannot be measured in monetary terms.

Basic research, Kaila says, should always set high targets for itself. “Completely risk-free research is not research at all, but reporting. The only way to come up with new discoveries is by taking risks.”

Kaila says it is particularly important that in providing education and conducting research, universities remain beyond the reach of political influence. Just one year ago there were throwbacks to the 1970s in Finland as politicians began to interfere in the substance and freedom of research.

“Apart from promoting free research, the university has an outright obligation to critically reflect on society and to contribute to public debate. This is crucial to the maintenance of democracy.”

“Everything from technologies to the structures of human communities are becoming more and more complex, so we need to have enlightened, educated people in society. Political decision-making requires experts, and if we have enough experts then it will also be possible to have a more objective assessment of the different views and viewpoints presented. If we have a critical mass of people who are capable of rational communication, then we know we have at least one point of reference in society.”

Kaila retired from his Academy Professorship from the beginning of June. However, he continues to work on his research and to run the laboratory at the Viikki campus with the same zest as ever.

Original text and photo: Jari Mäkinen

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