She takes milk in her sock
Did you think twice about the headline? Your brain probably did. Our fascinating brain is still full of mysteries and unanswered questions. And because of this, researchers from all over Aarhus University are looking for answers in and beneath the cerebral cortex. Some are looking at proteins and molecules – others at language and decision-making. We asked three researchers who are participating in this spring’s Matchpoints conference to tell us a little more about the brain.
If you are alive, but unconscious, is your life worth living? The question is asked by Professor Mikkel Wallentin from the School of Communication and Culture, under the Faculty of Arts. His work involves research into how our brains create thoughts, intelligence and our ability to interact with each other.
"On the one hand, we're looking for the basis for cognition in the brain. But we also want to find out whether there is an affect in the other direction. That is, whether our consciousness and thoughts also affect the brain. Our memory and experiences are both something that is stored in the brain and something that changes the brain," he says.
The milk in the sock
When Mikkel Wallentin looks at how our brains react to language and linguistic stimuli, the element of surprise is a good technique to use.
"We build up an expectation of hearing a particular word – like the coffee in the example ‘she uses milk in her sock’. By saying 'the sock' the brain suddenly has to process a completely unexpected word and we can actually see this when we examine the brain," says Mikkel Wallentin and elaborates: "We scan the brain and in this way we can record signals that reflect the brain's activity when it hears a particular word, and we can see where in the brain the activity occurs."
Mikkel Wallentin's primary research area focuses on the significance of language and how it changes the brain.
"It’s important to have a better understanding of what happens in the brain when we communicate. Every time we talk to ourselves, recall a memory or reflect and learn something new, we physically alter our brains," says Mikkel Wallentin.
But should he choose to find the answer to one question about our brains, then it would be the question of what happens in the brain when we talk to ourselves.
"Our inner voice is hugely important to us. Elite athletes use their inner voice as motivation to continue to keep going when things get really hard. But on the other hand, our studies suggest that our pulse increases if we talk negatively to ourselves. I would like to find out more about what happens while the inner monologue is running. This may e.g. have an impact on people with depression, but the objective is not to provide treatment. The goal is to understand the human mind," concludes Mikkel Wallentin.
What happens when a group of strangers are given a wad of cash and each have to decide how much of the money should go in the shared pool for the benefit of society – and how much money they, quite literally, can put in their own pockets?
Dan Mønster is associate professor at the Department of Economics and Business Economics under Aarhus BSS. When he looks at the brain, he investigates our behaviour. One way in which he does this is by looking at what happens when have to make communal decisions that also have consequences for ourselves.
"The brain is the starting point for all our decisions and the interactions that fundamentally make us human. One of the things we research is how emotions can affect decisions, or whether it’s actually the decision that affects how you feel.”
Decisions are shaped in a social context
Dan Mønster and his team invite test subjects to play a game about money in which the participants get their hands on cold cash. Some of the money must be given to a communal pool for the benefit of everyone. The rest of the money can be taken home when the experiment is over.
Among other things Dan Mønster has investigated whether seeing positive or negative photos before the experiment makes a difference to our desire to contribute to the community. The experiment showed that the negative photos led to some of the test subjects having less desire to contribute to the community, but only if they also had a tendency to suppress their emotions. The experiment that has surprised Dan Mønster the most was when the participants played against a computer without knowing it.
"People reacted completely as if it was a person they were playing against. We could get the participants to give a lot or almost nothing. It is an example of how we are social creatures, and that we react to what the other players are doing."
The fact that we form ourselves in relation to the social groups we are in has significance for the decisions we make both privately and in working life. Dan Mønster’s research can therefore possibly be developed into very specific tools.
"Our research can be used to design the best conditions for taking decisions in a group. How can we design a group dynamic that can rationally find the best possible decisions?"
And if Dan Mønster were to point to one question that he would most of all like to find the answer to, it is precisely finding the formula for a good decision-making process when it comes to the biggest challenges in the world:
"What will it take to solve the climate crisis, for example? How should we communicate about climate change before we make the decision to take action? What percentage of this should be carrot and what should be stick? Should we appeal to emotions or is that dependent on the individual – and how do we change it?"
A garbage protein is not just a garbage protein
Professor Poul Henning Jensen from the Department of Biomedicine spends some of his time in the laboratory looking at garbage. But not any old garbage.
"We can see that people with diseases such as Parkinson's or dementia have some specific proteins in the nerve cells that have collected a lot of garbage. For the past twenty years, we’ve been working on why this protein that sticks together causes so much damage. We have, among other things, been able to see that what we thought was just garbage has different forms, depending on which diseases the patients have. Protein changes in Parkinson's patients are different than those in patients with dementia."
Researchers have not succeeded in finding a treatment for diseases such as dementia and Parkinson's disease. It is therefore important that we understand exactly what happens in the brain when it becomes ill, says Poul Henning Jensen.
"We can take these proteins and see precisely which buttons they press inside the nerve cells. Patients receive a Parkinson's diagnosis very late, but often they’ve had problems with their sleep or had a depression up to ten years earlier. By learning more about what actually happens in the brain – as in how the proteins change – it may be possible to diagnose them earlier or to develop forms of treatment."
Not surprisingly, the question of what happens inside the brain on a purely molecular level when we are affected by nerve-depleting diseases such as dementia and Parkinson's, is the one that Poul Henning Jensen hopes to find the answer to.
"At the molecular level, I really want to understand what it means when we say that the brain ages. This is what leads to a greater risk of a range of diseases developing. The risk simply increases with age. To find out why the brain is ageing and what is happening inside the brain. That’s what I’d like to find the answer to," concludes Poul Henning Jensen.
About the MatchPoints Conference 5-7 May 2022
- Theme: “Our Fascinating Brain”.
- 5-6 May: Academic conference in the Lakeside Lecture Theatres.
- Poul Henning Jensen is the moderator for the workshop "Memory Disturbances in Neurological Disease" on Thursday 5 May, 15:00-16:30.
- Dan Mønster will give a presentation on "Emotions and Decision Making in Humans" on Friday 6 May, 13:15-14:45.
- You can hear Mikkel Wallentin's presentation "How Language Shapes the Brain and Cognition" on Friday 6 May, 13:15-14:45.
- On Saturday 7 May, a popular event will be held at Moesgaard Museum. The event is sold out, but it is possible to join the waiting list here: https://fuau.dk/aarhus/program/vidensarrangementer/hjernen-gennem-100000-aar-(eftermiddag)-2211-502
- Find the complete programme and sign up for MatchPoints here: https://matchpoints.au.dk/
MatchPoints – Facts
Aarhus University has been hosting MatchPoints – an academic conference with an outward-facing profile – every year since 2007. The purpose of MatchPoints is to create communication between Aarhus University and the general public on issues of broad interest in the community. One feature of MatchPoints is that the speakers are some of the most eminent names in the field.
Troels Staehelin Jensen
Palle Juul-Jensens Boulevard 165
DK-8200 Aarhus N
Mobil: (+45) 2616 7042