And the Hustinx Prize goes to... neuroscientist Sanne ten Oever
A predictive machine is what you might call the brain, because it is constantly trying to predict what will happen. In a conversation, for example, it tries to ‘guess’ which word will follow and when. Cognitive neuroscientist Sanne ten Oever wants to unravel exactly how the brain does this. She won the Edmond Hustinx Prize, but unfortunately couldn't be present to accept the award.
She is spending the week in Nuuksio National Park near Helsinki. Not to take pictures of the woodlark and the flying squirrel, but to participate in the 5th Science Factory Congress. Sanne ten Oever is doing a summer course on new methods to measure brainwaves. She had enrolled for it months ago and not long after that, she received news about the Hustinx Prize. Fantastic of course, but accepting it in person was no longer an option. She even tried to fly out a day later, but that was impossible.
Fortunately, her boyfriend didn't have anything pressing in his diary on Monday afternoon, so this former employee of the Faculty of Psychology, Mehrdad Seirafi, was able to accept the prize in her place. A sculpture plus a cheque worth 15,000 euro, to be spent on research. Ten Oever showed her gratitude in a video message during the opening of the academic year.
Even as a student, Ten Oever (born in 1989 in Zevenaar) attracted attention. She graduated with first-class honours, completed her research master's in Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences with honours, and then, through her own initiative (with help from professor Alexander Sack), gained an NWO Top Talent grant. Her own initiative, because Ten Oever had tapped into a new research discipline in the faculty: the study of basic brainwaves. She has in the meantime completed her PhD, with honours, and works as a postdoc.
The thing that fascinates Ten Oever, she says Skyping from the congress centre, is how the brain shapes reality. “You might think that the brain purely registers and processes all the sensory stimuli that it is fed, but it is not that simple. The brain interprets everything. At the moment, I have a banana peel on my table, but what do I see: something that you can eat, something you can slip on, and something that belongs in the bin. All previous experiences are necessary to see the banana peel as we see it.”
The brain interprets everything, but also predicts everything, says Ten Oever. “In a conversation, the brain continuously tries to predict which word is coming and when. If I stop in the middle of a sentence,” and she is promptly silent. “That is very awkward, isn't it? Also, when someone throws a ball to you, your brain estimates how fast the ball is travelling, exactly where it will land, et cetera. A child's brain is not so adept at this and so you see a toddler's grasp just missing its target or arms being raised too late. If the prediction is unfulfilled, the brain flips and a strong electric signal is created.”
The EEG (electroencephalography) is a suitable measuring method to map out brain predictions through these signals - or brainwaves. In doing so, you can measure exactly to the millisecond when a signal occurs. The disadvantage of an EEG is that you can't see in what part of the brain the electric potential is created. A project in which Ten Oever is collaborating with Ruhr University Bochum could provide results. That is what she will spend the prize money on.
In Bochum, as in several other institutes worldwide, there is a treatment for severe epileptic patients, in which EEG electrodes that are normally placed on a cap on the head, are implanted under the skull. Using this method, doctors hope to determine where the epileptic attacks are coming from in the brain. The patients first have the electrodes implanted through tiny holes in the skull and then they wait for a seizure.
In the meantime, Ten Oever asks them if they want to participate in her experiment. “This is a unique group of patients. Normally, you can only carry out this type of research on animals. Not everyone will want to participate; some people have enough on their minds, which is completely understandable. Others see it as a bit of a break, they are confined to their beds and see the experiment as a welcome change. As test subjects, they have to carry out small tasks, thus creating data as to when and where something happens in the brain.”
Just in case it wasn't clear yet, Ten Oever is an out-and-out researcher. “I love being the one asking the questions, searching for answers. That is not possible if you use the same tune time and again, you have to be creative and come up with solutions. The greatest moments occur in unchartered territories, when you have no grip on the situation and existing knowledge fails you. That is the most exciting, but also the most frustrating. Sometimes, you spend a lot of time on a study that turns out to yield nothing and proves to be a dead end.”