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Probing the Mysteries of the Human Brain
August 26, 2010   
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Prof. Andrzej Wróbel, Neurophysiology Department head at the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology in Warsaw, talks to Julia Pawłowska.

Your work as a neurophysiologist covers a range of mysterious-sounding disciplines such as neurobiology and neuroinformatics. What do these terms mean exactly?

Neurophysiology is the study of the functions of the nervous system. Neuroinformatics is a mathematical attempt at formulating the rules that govern certain neuronal phenomena. In other words, neuroinformatics seeks to turn neurobiology into a quantitative science like physics and chemistry, which, having described the processes that occur in the inanimate world, are capable of modeling these processes as computer programs. As far as neurobiology is concerned, the goal became attainable only after computers developed sufficient computing power, because biological processes are far more complicated than physical and chemical ones.

Neuroinformatics comprises three things: the development of new data analysis methods, the processing and unification of incredibly large databases, and computational modeling. As a theoretical science, neuroinformatics only employs computers to process data from complex devices at neurophysiology labs and neurological clinics. As such, it is a relatively cheap science.

Scientists created the new discipline by combining medicine, psychology and neurosciences with robotics, mathematics and computer science. That laid the groundwork for neuroinformatics, which, along with neurocognitive science, is expected to speed up research on the physiological mechanisms of mental processes. The modeling and analysis of these processes requires high-performance computers and Poland has such computers. We also have excellent computer scientists and mathematicians who make sure neuroinformatics can thrive here. Last but not least, we have good experimental labs that produce data for neurophysiology.

Why are researchers so keen on fathoming the mysteries of the human brain?

The human brain is one of the mysteries of nature that people are still unable to account for, and there is no standardized hypothesis in this area. The origins of life and the unknown laws of physics which governed the beginnings of the universe are similar mysteries.

The brain is the most complicated structure in the universe as we know it. The progress of medicine has significantly increased average life expectancy and, consequently, the frequency of age-related neurodegenerative diseases. At the same time, the world we live in, with all the pollution, stress and so on, constitutes a heavy burden on the human nervous system. As a result, it is estimated that by 2020 the social cost of treating diseases of the nervous system will top the list as far as spending on medical care in developed countries is concerned. Developed countries are aware of the need to foster neuroscience and are investing substantial funds in research in this area, because prevention is cheaper than cure.

Despite increased spending on neurobiological research, the 1990-2000 Decade of the Brain in the United States, Japan and Europe failed to bring the expected results and so in the mid-1990s OECD member states prioritized neuroinformatics instead. They established an organization called the International Neuroinformatics Coordination Facility (INCF) to coordinate neuroinformatics research worldwide. The result are specialized institutes in the United States, Germany, Britain and Israel which conduct research of this kind. I used to represent the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education in the INCF.

How well developed is neuroinformatics research in Poland?

Several research centers in Poland have dealt with neuroinformatics since the 1990s. At the beginning of this decade, the Neurophysiology Department at the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology obtained a grant to launch a news website with links to many people in Poland with an interest in this field of research. The website is www.neuroinf.pl

A special task force has been established at the Institute of Experimental Biology as a separate laboratory to study neuroinformatics. The lab is managed by Daniel Wójcik, Ph.D.

What have you been researching lately?

My current research focuses on issues studied by the institute’s Visual System Laboratory, which I manage. The name of the laboratory dates back to the days when I investigated the processing of data by the visual systems of cats and humans. We also have a team that studies the somatosensory system using the whiskers of rats as a model example. In our research, we use electrophysiology, which is a method of recording electric potentials from individual nerve cells, or neurons, and groups of those. We primarily seek to identify the brain mechanisms of perception in alert animals. Our method is known as chronic recordings of the electrical activity of the brain. We are particularly interested in determining the mechanisms of visual attention in cats and contextual changes in the tactile perception of rats.
What exactly are you trying to find out?

Among other things, we want to understand how the brain encodes data and identify the dynamic properties of neural networks, that is the modulation of the electrical activity of the brain when data on visual or tactile stimuli is being processed.

Neuroscientists often base their research on animals. Since you cannot put electrodes and probes in the human brain for experimental research, when you want to understand its mechanisms you need to find a good animal model. In rich countries, research on visual data processing, for example, is conducted on monkeys, while in Poland we use cats, because in both monkeys and cats these mechanisms are similar to those in humans. When you study plasticity processes in the brain, you use rat and mice as models.

We have been conducting several parallel research projects with Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Hungary and Australia.

All our papers are published in international science journals, many of which have a high impact factor (IF), which testifies to the prestige and importance of these publications. We have several articles printed every year in journals such as Neuroinformatics, the Journal of Neuroscience, the European Journal of Neuroscience, Experimental Neurology, the Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, and the Journal of Computational Neuroscience. We had our work published five times in the first few months of this year alone and all these articles received the highest ratings from the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education, at 24 points, as well as high IFs ranging from 2.5 to up to 7.5.

You are tied to the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities (SWPS). What does a neurobiologist have to do with social sciences?

I am a physicist by training, while my career in neurophysiology started after I began to study the activity of individual cells. I then developed an interest in neural networks and the functions they performed in the brain. The older I get, the more interested I become in the integrative functions of the human brain, hence my interest in psychophysiological research and work with my psychologist colleagues. I started giving lectures at the University of Warsaw’s Psychology Department back in the 1970s and for the past nine years I have taught at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities. It was there that I teamed up with Aneta Brzezicka, Ph.D., four years ago to launch Poland’s first neuropsychology specialization. We called it neurocognitive science, which is a science that combines neurobiology with cognitive psychology to account for the neurophysiological mechanisms of cognitive processes. Our first students complained they could not even remember the name, but then more such majors cropped up across the country. At present, they are available at universities in Toruń, Poznań and Gdańsk.

How do you obtain funding for these projects?

Our basic research relies on grants from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, which are basically sufficient to pay for what we need in this area. We also often get extra funding for large projects as part of European grants. We obtain some financial aid from producers of biomedical equipment and pharmaceuticals. The only program at the Neurophysiology Department to use private funds is one sponsored by a Western company.

Sadly, we are unable to compete in experimental neurobiological sciences on equal terms with the best and wealthiest research centers in Western Europe or other countries such as the United States, Japan, and Israel. But we are beginning to catch up with the global average as far as the results of our research are concerned.

On the other hand, we could spread our wings in some niche areas of neurophysiology, such as the study of behavior. Research in these areas is labor-intensive and simply too expensive for many leading centers because of the high labor costs involved and the pressure to obtain results fast. The problem is that, in its appraisal of the work of research teams, the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education is guided by the impact factor, which depends on the average number of citations. The IF is the highest in the trendiest fields of study, while being low in niche areas. This rating system leaves us with no option but to follow global trends.

How well known is Polish neurobiology research internationally?

The Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology is an internationally famous center for neurophysiology. In the past, many of the institute’s researchers won worldwide recognition after World War II. These included Prof. Jerzy Konorski, who researched integrative brain activity and instrumental reflexes; Prof. Liliana Lubińska, who led the way in neuronal transport; and Stella Niemerko, who specialized in neurochemistry. Today the international science community is familiar with brain plasticity research conducted by professors Małgorzata Kossut and Leszek Kaczmarek and with papers on neurorehabilitation written by professors Urszula Sławińska and Julita Czarkowska.

Kossut and Kaczmarek along with their teams have been investigating the molecular foundations of learning and memory formation and the molecular mechanisms of post-stroke neuroplasticity in adult and aging brains. The researchers have developed methods to induce model brain plasticity changes to determine how genetic modification and diseases impact the functions of the cortex.

Sławińska and Czarkowska, in turn, are widely known for their research on mechanisms governing locomotion control and recovery of motor functions in rodents after damage to the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nervous system. In particular, the professors’ work focuses on the mechanisms and course of apoptosis, the response of proteins which regulate cell death in neurodegeneration, the role of neurotrophins and cell adhesion proteins and the regulation of the expression of neurotrophin receptors in neuron regeneration and growth. The team led by Sławińska and Czarkowska has also won acclaim for developing a method to stimulate special protein pools involved in neuron regeneration. Moreover, Sławińska and Czarkowska are studying the combined effect and efficiency of pharmaceuticals known as spinal cord implants and physical training as a method to stimulate repair processes after spinal injuries and a severe disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

What kind of impact does this research have on medicine?

Most of the research at the institute is aimed at solving fundamental questions, but the institutions which grant funds, mainly those in Europe, increasingly require the research to gravitate towards practical application so that it can be used in medicine and psychology. This explains why we are checking new tests for Alzheimer’s disease and dyslexia, for example.

Prof. Elżbieta Szel±g at the Laboratory of Neuropsychology is doing research on the perception of time, speech and language, the functional asymmetry of the brain, biological aging, neurodegenerative diseases and neurodevelopmental disorders, and the recognition and spatial memory of different breeds of rats. Thanks to close work with an audiology and neurology clinic, the findings of this research have helped understand the mechanisms that occur in human patients with brain damage, hearing deficiencies and neurodegenerative diseases.

Apart from our institute, neurophysiological research in Poland is pursued by the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Experimental and Clinical Medicine in Warsaw, the Zoology Institute of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, the Institute of Pharmacology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Cracow, and the universities in Lublin, Gdańsk, Wrocław, Toruń, and Poznań.

To what extent have the mysteries of the human brain been explored? How many brain diseases can be treated at present?

For the most part, the brain remains a secret, unfortunately. It is the least explored and the most complicated structure in the universe. Even though it is responsible for all the processes that take place in our bodies, there is still no coherent concept of how the brain really works. Even though we know how it is built and which parts are in charge of what, there is no general theory of how the brain works, just as there is no rational theory to explain the origins of life or the first moments after the Big Bang.

However, the etiology of many diseases has been determined and so there has been extensive research to find the appropriate preventive measures.

The general public is puzzled and fascinated by terms such as artificial intelligence, neurofeedback, brain-machine interface, or neural networks. Are these terms science or are they still science fiction?

Most of them are pure science. After all, the brain is a neural network, especially when it comes to its functioning, and so quite naturally, neural networks are what our work is mainly about.

The brain-machine interface (BMI) is a superb tool that uses what we know about the brain to help people with all kinds of paralysis, such as paraplegia. For example, the brain-machine interface can provide a blind person with information on the visible world or record a paralyzed person’s brainwaves to enable the person to communicate with others.

Neurofeedback, in turn, is an important property that is part of hypotheses concerning neural networks. In Poland, the name is used interchangeably with biofeedback.

Artificial intelligence is a somewhat different story. For the time being, it is still more of a catch phrase than the future of mankind, because we are incapable of building an artificial brain equipped with emotions and a sense of purpose.

Factfile
Andrzej Wróbel graduated in biophysics from the University of Warsaw in 1970. He obtained his doctoral degree in 1974 and followed up with a postdoctoral qualification in 1984. He became a professor in 1996. He spent around three years doing research in the United States and Sweden.

Wróbel has been head of the Neurophysiology Department at the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology in Warsaw since 2002. He also manages the institute’s Visual System Laboratory. Moreover, he is deputy chairman of the institute’s Scientific Council and of the Neurobiology Committee of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Wróbel is a member of numerous scientific associations and has held a number of key posts in these organizations. For example, he was a member of the executive committees of the European Federation of Neuroscience Societies (FENS) and the European Brain and Behavior Society (EBBS). He also presided over the Polish Neuroscience Society, the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, and the Neurobiology Committee of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Wróbel represents Poland in the International Neuroinformatics Coordination Facility and is an editor of science journals such as Acta Neurobiologiae Experimentalis, Neuroinformatics and Kognitywistyka i Media w Edukacji.

Wróbel has authored around 60 articles published in English-language science journals. He has also written around 30 textbook publications and book chapters. In 1993, he became the Ministry of Science and Higher Education’s pointman on neuroinformatics, a new field of research in Poland at the time.
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