Riitta Hari: ‘We shared a common goal: understanding how the human brain works’
When neuroscientist Riitta Hari started working at the Low Temperature Laboratory of the Helsinki University of Technology, methods to measure brain activity were still very limited. Over the next decade, brain research and the instrument development stimulated and supported each other for continuous progress.
In early 1981, Riitta Hari, who had recently earned her Doctor of Medicine degree, received a surprise job offer from Professor Olli Lounasmaa, who founded the Low Temperature Laboratory in 1965. The laboratory was a world leader in ultra-low temperature research and renowned for record-low temperatures, reaching nearly absolute zero.
Lounasmaa had recently become interested in human brain function, which he considered a scientific problem comparable to the Big Bang. He felt that the team of physicists would benefit from a neuroscientist, and so he invited Riitta Hari to work at the Low Temperature Laboratory. Hari agreed to leave the hospital as soon as she had completed her Specialist Degree in Clinical Neurophysiology and secured her own funding. ‘I didn't want to be bossed about by anyone,’ she says.
Company founded by researchers becomes market leader
In September 1982, Hari started to work at the Low Temperature Laboratory and head the small research group studying human brain function using magnetoencephalography,or MEG.
MEG shows when and where groups of brain cells are active. The method measures the magnetic fields produced by neuronal currents with a precision of milliseconds. The equipment uses highly sensitive SQUID sensors, which are kept superconducting by immersing them in liquid helium at a temperature of –269°C.
Riitta Hari had already used single-channel MEG equipment to measure auditory responses during her dissertation. However, the equipment couldn’t provide information from the whole brain at once. This prevented the study of more complex phenomena and, for example, spontaneous brain activity.
The Low Temperature Laboratory invested heavily in developing multi-channel MEG equipment. A 4-channel device was completed in 1984, a 7-channel device in 1986 and a 24-channel one in 1989.
‘At the Low Temperature Lab, instrument development and neuroscientific research went hand in hand, which was of vital importance. When we gained access to better equipment, we carried out measurements around the clock and used the new results to justify why the equipment should be developed further,’ Hari says.
In 1989, Lounasmaa, Hari and three of their colleagues founded a company named after the MEG sensors – the Finnish word mustekala translates to squid.
Three years later, Mustekala, which later became Neuromag Oy, built the world's first whole-head MEG device with 122 channels. In three decades, the company has grown, changed names and ownership, and become the world leader in its field.
These days, MEG is widely used in both basic research and medical diagnostics, such as locating epileptic foci before surgery.
Bringing neuroscience and physics under the same roof raised a few eyebrows in the 80s, but it was worth it. ‘We shared a common goal: understanding how the human brain works. Such a convergence-research approach went far beyond multi- and interdisciplinary approaches by integrating diverse perspectives, insights and knowledge on a common problem,’ Riitta Hari says.
Text by Minna Hölttä