The search for a better brain-imaging technology has taken a novel turn at Hitachi Advanced Research Labs in Hatoyama, Japan. The company’s researchers aren’t just perfecting a new imaging machine-a reasonable goal for the electronics giant-they are helping to conduct basic brain-science studies geared at improving education and even promoting world peace. To achieve those goals, researchers are using imaging advances to do everything from observing the pathways of comprehension in newborns to tracking the ways an adult brain compensates for injuries while it performs such high-level tasks as writing, solving math problems, and responding to spoken commands.
Hitachi’s technology, known as optical topography, is well suited for such studies. Unlike other brain-imaging methods, optical topography allows the patient to sit, move, write, and talk while it monitors activity in specific regions of the subject’s cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain where such functions as language are handled. The patient simply wears headgear festooned with optical probes and detectors, and the imaging system uses near-infrared light to provide a view of blood flow. Changes in blood flow might indicate comprehension: for example, flow to the language areas of the cerebral cortex increases when the patient recognizes spoken words. Optical topography detects such changes because although near-infrared light passes through skin and skull, it is absorbed in the cerebral cortex by hemoglobin in the blood. The more blood flow, the more hemoglobin-and the less light is reflected back to the device’s detectors.
Other companies are also developing medical imaging equipment, but it is the application of this technology to basic cognitive studies that makes the Hitachi research group stand out. One long-term goal, for instance, is to use insights gleaned from the imaging to improve educational curricula. “Education is becoming a natural-science field, and the key is observing brain activity by noninvasive means,” says Hitachi senior chief scientist Hideaki Koizumi, inventor of the technology. “We can improve educational efficiency by knowing the exact developmental stages of a child.” Information from the imaging could also aid the development of better therapies for elderly patients who suffer from dementia or for victims of strokes and other brain injuries.
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.