Diego Redolar: "Industry uses neuroscience to understand human behaviour"

27/11/2017
Rubn Permuy
UOC R&I Talk

What is your academic and professional background?

I studied Psychology and found that I enjoyed Biology and took some courses from this degree. I was particularly interested in the nervous system and decided to do a master's degree in Neurosciences at the Universitat Autnoma de Barcelona (UAB) and another in Statistics at the same time. Then I started my research with a doctoral degree in Neurosciences and spent a few years in Canada. Later, I returned to the UAB and in 2005, when the UOC was filling the post of professor, I joined this university.

You are the principal investigator in the Cognitive Neurolab group at the UOC. What is its area of expertise?

It is a group interested in discerning the neural bases of cognitive processes, such as learning and memory or executive functions. This is everything that can be connected to a support structure called cognitive control. There are many aspects that can be studied: memory, attention, decision-making and the theory of mind, which is our capacity to put ourselves in the place of other people. However, above all, what interests us is trying to explore the neural bases behind these processes: seeing how the brain works, how we recruit the different areas of the brain, how they are organized, how they are connected, to enable these cognitive functions.

Related to this field of understanding our decision-making processes, you have a project funded by the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness.

Within our main line of research, we have spent years carrying out different types of research fundamentally funded by different Ministry projects. We have been interested particularly in seeing how there are two networks in the brain, one more dorsal, which is in the upper part of the cerebral cortex, and another that is more ventral. The more dorsal network is very important for the executive functions of the area responsible for reasoning, while the more ventral network is closely related to emotions and, above all, to adapting them to a person's current context, that is, social, normative, etc. We are interested in trying to dissociate the role of these two networks in cognitive control. We think that the dorsal network enables the executive function and the ventral part enables emotional processing. In the different projects, what we are seeing is that emotions can interfere with working memory. Basically, what we do at the laboratory is to non-invasively activate or deactivate different regions of the brain in participants without any pathology to see during a period of 10 or 15 minutes if the region we have deactivated is important for the task we are undertaking in the laboratory. We do this through non-invasive brain stimulation techniques that allow us to create what is called a virtual injury: we make a specific area of the brain non-functional for a few minutes. This is enough time to do the cognitive tests and see if this region is really important for the function we are measuring. For example, let's imagine that we deactivate the area responsible for producing language, although we do not actually do this. The person participating for 10 or 15 minutes would be unable to speak because this region is very important for producing speech. We do something very similar but linked to these aspects related to cognitive control.

Is the brain still the great unknown?

Fortunately for those of us who work in the neuroscience of the nervous system, and above all of the encephalon, we know a great deal, but we still have more to discover and develop. In particular, when we explore the cognitive processes we lack a lot of information, as there is still a long way to go. Over the next few years we will be able to start up a great many projects that push the frontiers of science and almost seem like fiction. Today technology is advancing at a rapid pace and it allows us to go where 15 years ago it would have been impossible, which enables us to obtain copious amounts of interesting data.

Why is it so complicated to explore what remains to be discovered about the nervous system?

We can study the nervous system from different perspectives. For example, there are experts more dedicated to the molecular side. By observing two neurons in a model you can see how they communicate and understand their behaviour. In more macroscopic anatomy, we can say that this group of neurons is connected and we can study aspects linked to different networks and acquire knowledge of the most anatomical part or structural connectivity. In terms of functions, you can study learning or emotions, trying to see which regions enable these abilities. This can be studied, but explaining the phenomenon is highly complex. Some functions are easier to study and others are more complicated. For example, two complicated functions are creativity and consciousness, studying the neural bases. There are many neuroscientists who when they study consciousness challenge the idea that we can never understand its neural bases because our brain is not prepared for this. Through neuroscience we also realize our limitations because we arrive at processes where the bases are limited by our current techniques.

Neuroscience is a very cross-cutting discipline, isn't it?

Neuroscience is one of the most cross-cutting disciplines. In fact, this is already noticeable at bachelor's degree level. Most countries do not have bachelor’s degrees in this field, with exceptions such as the Netherlands, with one in Neurobiology. The most common are the different basic bachelor's degrees such as Medicine, Psychology and Biology, with specializations in Neurosciences at master's degree or doctoral level. This explains why in a neuroscience laboratory we find psychologists, doctors, biologists, computer scientists and physicists, even experts from the field of economics. Because when we try to examine the most complex functions related with decision-making, creativity or consciousness, we have to try to approach the phenomenon from a wide-ranging discipline. If we are studying decision-making, it is important to understand anatomy or connectivity but also how we make decisions in different situations. And it is highly enriching to have a neuroscience laboratory with professionals from different areas and disciplines to give a more global vision of the brain, which is quite complicated.

Is technology key in the advances of neuroscience?

In neuroscience, technology is one of the critical factors. If we talk about the techniques that were applied to studying the workings of a living brain, which began in the 1970s, the progress made in the acquisition of knowledge has been tremendous, especially in the last five years. We have undergone a technological change not only in neuroimaging techniques but also in genetics. All of this is currently providing such a large amount of information that is it complicated to process it, integrate it and relate it to the different fields of how the nervous system works. One of the tasks before us is to try to grasp all this information to provide a more global explanation. Fortunately, there are projects that try to combine forces to explain more global questions. The BRAIN Initiative in the United States and the Human Conectome Project work in this direction. They try to exploit different technologies being used in different research groups. This somewhat goes against the pressures on scientists, both in academia and research, to publish. If you do not publish you are nobody and you cannot progress. And for this you need new information; the journal must find it interesting and be willing to publish it... There is often reluctance to share data because of this pressure. An effort is being made to work more collaboratively and to ensure that the data does not belong to anyone but is available to all. And of course this can redound to the publications. Because if you have access to the data of other groups, depending on how you use it, it will have an influence on the publications of your group and, most importantly, it will help with the knowledge that interests us: understanding how our brain works.

Is the future of scientific publications open access?

Yes, absolutely. In neuroscience the most normal thing is to publish in open access. In order to publish in any neuroscience journal, you have to pay. For example, a paper costs between 3,000 and 5,000 euros. When you hold a call for projects, you have an allocation to pay publications, as it is one of the ways to ensure that science reaches everyone and is not only for universities. This is the approach of neuroscience, and most big publishers with journals of this kind are moving towards open access. One of the aspects that has changed direction has been the appearance of journals like Frontiers, which has many publications in the field of neuroscience and has an open access policy. They are highly respected and have a very good impact factor. When there are highly respected journals, with highly critical editorial board, and very good and stringent reviewers, but everything is open, researchers are encouraged to choose open access. This is important. Fortunately, five years ago there was a significant shift towards open access and now it is the norm.

Should we be concerned about possible commercial interests deriving from understanding issues such as memory?

It is very important not only in the business field but also in the legal sphere. I will explain a couple of aspects, one positive and one negative. The positive, in relation to memory, what we know about neural bases and how our brain works, is that it is being used in the legal sphere for witness memory. This is very important because there are errors that depend on the functioning of important structures of the consolidation of memory, such as the hippocampus or the prefrontal cortex. We know how these errors work. If this is applied at a legal level it can help to select a testimony and to have tools to corroborate if it is valid. And in this field neuroscience is providing a great deal of information. It is not used here in Spain, but in the United States it is applied to witness memory. The negative aspect is that in neuroscience there are many studies linked to social cognition. For example, a study recently published in relation to the trust or distrust generated by a face. We know which structures are critical for this perception of trust. Sometimes we come across someone we know nothing about and yet they inspire trust. There are different facial characteristics that activate various regions, such as the amygdala and insula, which cause us to inspire trust or distrust: for example, faces that are more symmetrical, faces with teeth that are shorter, longer... In politics this can provide important information about whether a candidate inspires trust. This is being applied in the United States. It is also being done in the economic field. When we make decisions, our cortices help us to make them. The prefrontal cortex tries to select the strategy it considers most suitable to make a decision. But it can sometimes be manipulated. For example, if we go to the cinema and we have the option of buying a bowl of popcorn for three euros or another [larger one] for seven. According to studies, most would buy the one for three, as there is enough popcorn, we have spent money on the ticket and we won't eat the large amount of popcorn in the seven-euro bowl. But if you offer a bowl for three euros, one for six-fifty and another for seven, most will choose the one for seven for different reasoning. For 50 cents you have twice the popcorn. This is how the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex functions. It does this kind of reasoning and in the end we choose to buy the seven-euro bowl and we would not do this if the bowl for six-fifty was not available. The industry knows this and also uses neuroscience studies to really see how our brain and the buying decision work. They study how to place the products so that we buy what interests them. When you go to the cinema or a restaurant, you are encouraged to make a choice, apparently freely, but in the end it is configured by the options you have in front of you.

Can you recommend a book about neuroscience?

Aprender, recordar y olvidar: Claves cerebrales de la memoria y la educacin, by Ignacio Morgado. It provides a very clear explanation of how our brain enables us to acquire and store information and make memories possible. Memory is an interesting subject, above all in relation to Alzheimer's disease or disorders that concern us today.