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Suitable To Be the Century of the Brain and the Century of the Mind
Investigating the Return of Science to Society

Institute of Applied Brain Sciences (2010 Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT): Strategic Research Base Development Program for Private Universities)

On the occasion of reaching the 125th anniversary of its founding in 2007, Waseda University drew up plans for important research promotion areas into which the university will put organizational and strategic effort in order to establish the world-class "Waseda of Research", and also created the mid-to-long-term "Waseda Next 125" plan. In order to make this goal a reality, the Organization for University Research Initiatives was created in April 2009 to make the organization of the entire school ready to promote strategic research, and there was a call for research projects to be done at the school in four important domains in both 2009 and 2010.

One of the four important domains in the first year was "Formation of New Trends in Health and Medicine", and from amongst the 11 project applications at the school, the one that was chosen was a research project by the Institute of Applied Brain Sciences which is made up chiefly of professors from the Waseda University Faculty of Human Sciences and Faculty of Sport Sciences. The project was called Giving the sciences of the brain and the mind back to society-Applied brain science based on integrated human sciences (Figure 1).

Director of the Institute of Applied Brian Sciences, Professor Hiroaki Kumano, Faculty of Human Sciences

"Applied brain sciences" refers to a broad field of interdisciplinary research based on recent developments in brain science with the goal of bringing the benefits of this knowledge back to society while also making it useful for promoting health and treating diseases and disorders in the everyday lives of people. It is an extremely hot field, and it is being researched heavily by many corporations as they work towards the industrialization and commercialization of the field. As an academic subject however, it is only in its infancy.

In order for people to bring brain science into their lives without worry, the scientific foundations of brain science itself must be established and scholarly research on applying brain science to society's problems must be promoted. The Institute of Applied Brain Sciences, Waseda University was started with this goal. We talked to the Director, of the Institute, Professor Hiroaki Kumano of the Faculty of Human Sciences, about work on research projects promoted by the Institute.

Figure 1- Waseda University's Institute of Applied Brain Sciences' Research Vision

Bringing Together a Wide-range of Related Research Domains

"It's been a long time since the 21st century was called the century of the brain and the century of the heart, but still the truth is that there is an excess of information and this has actually made things more confusing. To people and society, it is not often apparent how knowledge of science of the brain and heart can be applied. Society demands that ways to make brain science useful for the improvement of day-to-day health are easy to understand and that new methods of treatment and support are developed for people with psychological diseases and disorders". - Director Kumano

The field known as brain science covers a large scope from the narrow definition of the study of the brain as an organ to the broad definition which is an interdisciplinary field which has recently grown to include sport science, human science, and social science along with other areas. There is a requirement to view brain science knowledge from above and construct a range of applications while bringing together mutually beneficial areas, but the scope of the areas that must be reviewed is too large, making it extremely difficult to synthesize them.

In this area, the strength of the Institute of Applied Brain Sciences lies in the fact that, while it is a compact team, it gathers together researchers from an extraordinary variety of fields, including medicine, biology, sports science, health science, clinical psychology, basic psychology, informatics, engineering, linguistics, and environmental science. Human science and sports science have a history of organizing to perform interdisciplinary research with a wide background, and from that history, this time it includes a general mobilization of researchers with a relationship with brain science or adjoining fields.

"Applied brain science is being worked on using a number of approaches, but I think this is the only project in the world so far where researchers from varied fields are brought tightly together in comparatively small-scale research center" - Director Kumano

Figure 2 shows the extent of the range of research at the Institute of Applied Brain Science. It can be broadly divided into three areas. Shown in blue is the Brain Group, which researches the structure and function of the brain's nervous system. Shown in red is the Development group, which researches lifelong development and communication, and shown in orange is the Behavior Group, which focuses on research related to behavior, society, and the environment.

The Brain Group is made up of researchers who specialize in fundamental brain science research. This group drives cutting-edge brain research and also takes on an advisory role, confirming that the entire project is performing research based firmly in brain science. The Development Group is mapped to research such as the application of robot nursing to the treatment of dementia within the elderly/disabled theme, shown on the top right of Figure 2, childhood development and the fostering of skills, shown on the bottom left, and applying brain science to research on development disorders through linguist informatics, shown on the upper middle of the figure. The Behavior Group is positioned for research that will become an interface between society and the sciences of the mind and brain, as shown on the top of the figure, as well as research on clinical psychology and behavioral medicine on the center.

Figure 2 - Applied brain science research implementation system

When the mind changes, the brain changes, and when the brain changes, the mind changes

An example of a specific initiative is research by Director Kumano and other researchers in the Behavior Group that seeks to discover the relationship between the workings of the brain and patients who suffer from depression or panic disorders, and then apply this knowledge to behavior therapy or cognitive behavior therapy.

"Currently depression and panic disorders are seen not so much as a disease of the mind but as a disease caused by abnormalities in the functioning of the brain. The precepts of standard medicine say that the workings of the brain should be adjusted with medicine, and proper use of medication undoubtedly leads to improvements in patients. Even when not using medication however, sufficient recovery can be seen in patients treated using cognitive behavior therapy, which changes the patient's behavioral patterns systematically. Furthermore, cognitive behavior therapy is known to have a lower recurrence rate than treatment with medication". - Director Kumano

In panic disorders, attacks of anxiety are repeated without any reason. Once an attack happens in a certain situation-like on a train-just "riding a train" is enough to push a sufferer's panic button, and this leading to an attack becomes habitual. During an attack over a short period of time, the sufferer experiences a racing pulse, difficulty breathing, chest pains, vertigo, a fear of going insane, a fear of death, or some other symptom, and they get off the train. Cognitive behavior therapy actively overcomes the fear by placing the sufferer in the uncomfortable situation with the training such as going out or riding a train. Specifically, the patient checks his or her level of anxiety using a point system every five to ten minutes. When this is done, the patient's anxiety levels rise rapidly to a certain point, but after 15 to 20 minutes they begin to relax. It has been found that experiencing the process of crossing this anxiety peak is very effective at improving panic disorders.

In a 2005 paper, Director Kumano was the first to reveal that patients suffering from panic disorders have elevated levels of activity not only during an attack but also while at rest in the areas of the brain known as the amygdala, the hippocampal formation, and the periaqueductal gray. Additionally, he discovered the next year that when a patient undergoes cognitive behavior therapy as explained above, an area of the brain called the dorsal medial, which is located in front of the frontal lobe behind the forehead, is activated to a limited degree in comparison with pre-treatment levels (Figure 3).

"We have come to understand this part of the brain to be responsible for putting a little distance between you and your mind and seeing things objectively. The frontal lobe has the role of controlling behavior for long-term benefit and not allowing us to give in to easily accessible desires or impulses, so we are able to live humanly. By using a systematic training method to improve the functioning of the frontal lobe, we think we may be able to improve not only panic disorders but also developmental disorders or, unexpectedly, diabetes and obesity". - Directory Kumano

Aside from panic disorders, in the research on developmental disorders (Developmental Group), research is being carried out on patients who have Asperger's Syndrome, which causes difficulties in communication similar to autism despite a normal level of cognitive function. Patients with Asperger's Syndrome can communicate well using words, but the disorder is characterized by the inability of patients to understand situations or read the feelings of others, because they have difficulty with non-verbal communication. Normal people naturally read the true feelings of other people through their emotions communicated with tone of voice, intensity, and speed. It is now clear that patient's with Asperger's Syndrome have difficulty with reading these signs. Using knowledge from such linguistic informatics approaches, researchers are aiming to further deepen the connection with the workings of the brain.

"The thing that is important is systematic training. This means that specific parts of the brain can be exercised. To say this in another way, when the mind changes, the brain changes, and when the brain changes, the mind changes-we are investigating the possibility of applying brain science and scientifically verifying these kinds of related domains". - Director Kumano

Figure 3 - It was first published by Director Kumano's group that there was more activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal area accompanying improvements in symptoms in comparison with the state of brains before cognitive behavior therapy for panic disorders (combination of data on 11 test subjects).

Creating a database of a broad range of knowledge

In addition to the in-school research funds for the important research area over the three years from 2009 to 2011, the Institute's research was also selected as a Strategic Research Base Development Program for Private Universities of MEXT, and this secured it another five years of research funding. Organizational cooperation is also in progress between the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry, the Nippon Medical School (they concluded a comprehensive cooperative agreement with Waseda in 2008 and 2009, respectively), and the Hiroshima University Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

"The plan is that over the next three years, each group will continue to advance its research, and after three years we will stop once to organize our findings. Then we will discuss the development for the final two years. In preparation for that, the research findings are scheduled to be data mined, mainly by information systems researchers, and an applied brain science database framework is scheduled to be constructed. We hope to move throughout the broad field of applied brain science and continuously expand the database while also making it widely available to the public".

In 2010, the interdisciplinary research is getting serious, and excellent, easy-to-handle equipment that can be shared across diverse domains, including an optical topography system which can measure blood flow in the brain, has been put in place. In an environment where this kind of equipment can be easily used, researchers from diverse fields that didn't have a connection with brain science until now are working to spread the connection between brain science and society as well as people.

Figure 4 - Five year research roadmap (2010 Strategic Research Base Development Program for Private Universities of MEXT - Formation of an applied brain science research base for returning the science of the brain and mind to society)

Related Links

Institute of Applied Brain Sciences, Organization for University Research Initiatives, Waseda University

Organization for University Research Initiatives, Waseda University

Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry