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Functional Brain Imaging, New Industry Hatchery Center

Prof. Ryuta Kawashima Ryuta Kawashima

In this field, we perform interdisciplinary research which spans industrial, government and academic sectors, and that uses noninvasive brain function imaging systems such as functional MRI equipment, near infrared measurement devices, and event-related electro-encephalogram devices. Two major topics in our research are brain science research, in which we explore the relationship between the human brain and mind, and social technology research, in which knowledge of brain science is applied to education and social welfare. In addition, we are advancing neuroinformatic research to develop automated medical image evaluation systems by compiling image information about brain functions into a database. To this end, researchers from various fields of study, not only in medicine but also those having a background in engineering, information science, psychology, linguistics, philosophy and mathematics, are participating in these researches.

1. Brain science research

The objects in this study are the brains of healthy humans. It is possible to evaluate the images of a brain obtained while a subject is involved in various mental tasks such as exercise, cognition, memorization, linguistic communication, emotional responses and thinking, by fully utilizing noninvasive brain function imaging systems.

The final goal of this research is the clarification of the relationship between the mind and brain. The current primary research topic is the study of the relationships between the brain and language, emotion and attention; however, we maintain a policy of allowing researchers to advance their studies in accordance with their own interests.

In the study of linguistic science, this group was selected as one of the Centers of Excellence (COE) in the 21st century which is supported by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, as a “Strategic Research and Education Center for an Integrated Approach to Language, Brain and Cognition.” We have been disseminating much information on unique research accomplishments such as 1) the identification of the region of the brain in which syntax structures are analyzed, 2) the identification of the region of the brain in which the functions for handling second and third foreign languages are located, and 3) the characterization of changes in brain functions during the acquisition of foreign language skills.

Furthermore, we have achieved a world first in clarifying the temporo-spatial pattern in information processing in the brain by simultaneously obtaining functional MRI, electroencephalograms and near infrared spectroscopy and handling these image data mathematically. As a result, the possibility of imaging the mind’s activity has been brought one step closer to realization.

In this field of research, we have made numerous accomplishments and attracted the attention of the global scientific community. As a result of these accomplishments, we were able to host the 8th International Conference on Functional Mapping of the Human Brain, for the first time in the Asia/Oceania area, in June 2002.

2. Social technology research

This is an area of study aiming to apply the knowledge obtained in the field of brain science research. Measures to create a hopeful future by overcoming the difficulties observed in a society with fewer children and with an increasing number of elderly persons are proposed from the viewpoint of brain science. On-going actual research topics include (1)educational methods to develop healthy brain functions in children (particularly in the prefrontal area), (2)antiaging methods to maintain and improve brain functions in adults and elderly persons, (3)rehabilitation methods for cognition to improve the brain functions of patients with dementia and people with cognitive development disabilities, and (4)methods of learning foreign languages based on scientific findings. To promote these studies, we have established a cooperative research network with researchers working in the fields of education, neuroscience and cognitive psychology at Nagoya University, Kyoto Education University, Nippon University, Keio University, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Ritsumeikan University and the National Center for Neurology and Psychiatry Japan. This research is attracting much attention among the general public, and is being carried out with support from the Japanese government (Japanese Science and Technology Agency) as a joint research project with industrial partners and local governments (city of Sendai and Gifu prefecture).

Many countries list education as an important element of their national policies. Research on Brain Science and Education has been carried out globally, centering around the OECD since 2003; we currently engage in this research at an advanced level. As part of our research activities, we hosted an International Symposium for Learning Therapy in December 2002 and again in January 2004, and disseminated the results of the symposium.

3. Neuroinformatic research

We are developing systems and software to enable the re-analysis of images of brain morphology obtained by MRI and images of brain functions obtained by functional MRI. Our team participates as Japan’s representative in the preparation of a global database (Mega-ICBM) in corporation with the NIH (USA), UCLA (USA) and Duesseldorf University (Germany). An automatic diagnostic system using clinical cerebral blood flow images is also being developed jointly with the Graduate School of Engineering, Tohoku University, and the Institute of Development, Aging and Cancer, Tohoku University.

4. Education policy

Our basic principle in this field is ‘research with passion.’ We aim at fostering internationally recognized researchers who carry out their research independently. Therefore, in principle, the language used in our seminars is English; also, students in our graduate program must present their work at international meetings. We have established a rotating training system with the 21st century COE, “Strategic Research and Education Centers for an Integrated Approach to Language, Brain and Cognition,” so that students and researchers can acquire the professional knowledge from other fields which is necessary to carry out their research (for example: linguistics, psychology, information science).

To foster researchers who can carry out their research independently, research topics are selected in accordance with their interests. Researchers are guided to perform a series of tasks in the following sequence; planning their own research theme, carrying out experiments, and presenting and publishing their results at international conferences and in overseas academic journals.

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