Koizumi also serves as director of brain science and education research at the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. In this capacity, he is developing a 10-year plan for Japan’s brain science research, a road map he expects to complete in March. His goals are ambitious: “I am very much interested in how to cultivate warm heart and generosity that must lead to world peace,” he says. It’s possible to think on these grand terms, he adds, because observing brain functions can lead to insights into what triggers human behavior.
To get started, 10 researchers from the Hitachi lab are collaborating with cognitive scientists at universities in Japan and abroad. In a study conducted at the Laboratory of Cognitive and Psycholinguistic Sciences in Paris, researchers wired probes to newborn babies and watched the language centers of the babies’ brains. The images showed blood flow increasing when the babies heard their mothers’ native language and decreasing when they heard foreign languages. Another Hitachi collaboration is under way at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, where researchers are using the device to learn how children’s brains compensate for injuries suffered at birth.
While Hitachi sees a potentially large market for the brain-imaging technology, its grander motivations have drawn praise from pioneering biophysicist Britton Chance, who developed a related version of the optical-imaging system in 1996. “It’s a humanitarian effort,” says Chance, a professor emeritus at University of Pennsylvania. “This is a quirk of corporate interest, a very unusual event.”
Indeed, if optical-topography research begins to help improve education, the Hitachi program will have had a tremendous impact even if it falls short of bringing about world peace.