After several years of preparation, the HSE Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience (ICN) recently opened a new cluster of approximately 10 laboratories for the cognitive sciences, enabling researchers to benefit from each other’s experience and make joint use of exclusive equipment for conducting experiments. ICN Director Vasily Klyucharev told IQ.HSE about new prospects for neuroscience research that the cluster has opened up and how far scientists have advanced in penetrating the secrets of the human brain.
Director, Institute for Cognitive Neurosciences,
Laboratory Head, International Laboratory of Social Neurobiology
— Vasily Andreevich, the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience has moved to a new building at Krivokolenny Pereulok, 3. How have your research laboratories changed and what new opportunities does the space provide to scientists?
— This is a major, long-awaited event for us. Several years ago, HSE School of Psychology Academic Supervisor Vladimir Shadrikov and I discussed the idea of creating a world-class research centre. The main idea was to place HSE's various cognitive sciences labs close together so that scientists could effectively share their experiences, participate in joint seminars and borrow sophisticated equipment from each other. Yaroslav Kuzminov gave his support to this idea of concentrating our forces in one location.
We have been working towards this goal for a long time. The result is a comprehensive experimental research complex, perhaps the first of its kind at HSE. Not only is the ICN here, but this common space that occupies several floors is also home to the newly relocated Center for Language and Brain and several School of Psychology research labs dealing with cognitive processes. These include the Research and Teaching Laboratory (RTL) for the Neurobiological Foundations of Cognitive Development, and the RTLs for Cognitive Psychology of Digital Interface Users, Vision Modelling and Cognitive Research.
The result is that we have managed to concentrate the main experimental facilities of 10 research labs here. As planned, it has become an inter-faculty research centre that employs linguists, psychologists, neuroscientists and even IT specialists. All the research is aimed, in one way or another, at how the human brain perceives information. Now, it is the leading national centre for the study of cognitive processes and we plan to develop it further.
— What are the development priorities of the Institute of Cognitive Neurosciences?
— We currently have one of the country’s most advanced brain stimulation centres — the Laboratory for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). It is equipped with the university’s only device for transcranial brain stimulation and neuroimaging. Such equipment often has medical applications, but in our case, the TMS is a research device that uses a focused magnetic beam to ‘tap into’ various areas of the brain — either activating or suppressing them — and to see how cognitive functions change as a result.
One of our pieces of scientific equipment even has two TMS beams, making it possible to work on two different areas of the brain simultaneously and observe their interaction. These devices have proven very useful. We have already conducted a lot of research on everything from, for example, decision-making mechanisms in risky situations to the motor functions of the brain — an understanding of which makes it possible for people to recover faster after a stroke.
The Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience consists of three research centres — the Centre for Cognition and Decision Making (founded in 2014), and the Centre for Bioelectric Interfaces (2018) and the International Laboratory of Social Neurobiology (2019), both of which were created with the help of mega-grants.
— When did HSE build this unique science facility? Are you working to improve and modernise it?
— We created the installation eight years ago and have been working hard to develop it in recent years. For example, we recently purchased a robot that makes it possible to stimulate the brain more efficiently and accurately. Although in the past the researcher had to hold a special heavy coil that generated a magnetic field near the test subject’s head and constantly monitor its orientation, this is now done by a robot. This opens up new horizons for us in the accuracy and complexity of our experiments.
This year, we received a very large government grant for the further development of our scientific facility. For example, the lab will acquire equipment that can track a person's movements, making it possible not only to stimulate the brain but also to observe the effects of stimulation on very subtle aspects of movement. This is especially important for patients with movement disorders as a result of stroke or for experiments on social communication.
— Is the TMS lab open to others and your colleagues from other universities?
— Of course. As part of the grant, we plan to launch various large projects, including joint projects with colleagues from other universities such as St. Petersburg State University. We will try over the next two years to transform into a centre that is truly open to colleagues from all over Russia who would be able to come and conduct experiments. This is a separate task — to make it easier for others to access our equipment.
— Do you plan to collaborate with medical centres?
— Yes, we plan to develop into new areas and have opened a second lab for transcranial magnetic brain stimulation for this purpose. A Nexstim brain stimulation system has been installed in the lab. When you enter, you see special mounts for holding and supporting partially paralysed arms that make it possible to study people with motor disorders. And we are already working to establish partnerships with medical institutions.
— What other new and exciting things can the Institute of Cognitive Neurosciences do as a result of its move into new premises?
— It's funny, but we have another interesting area of development: we are gradually taking over the HSE basements. Basements are generally used for storing things such as documents, but university researchers around the world use them as the ideal place for conducting experiments because they are quiet and usually have less electrical wiring that creates magnetic and electrical interference. At Krivokolenny Lane, we have already equipped a room in the basement for conducting experiments, and we are planning to equip another one on the campus on Basmannaya Street.
— Please describe in more detail which experiments you are conducting or planning to carry out in such converted basements. What equipment is already there?
— To begin with, part of our institute from HSE is included in the so-called World-Class Research Centres (WCRC) programme. This is a huge national project to create world-class centres for studying social processes. This is helping us to further expand our technology base. For example, we recently acquired an interesting new device for fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy). To some extent, this is a portable version of an MRI scanner — that, unfortunately, we don’t have yet. It uses a laser that passes through the subject’s brain and registers changes in blood flow to various parts, showing their current activity. Unlike the bulky MRI scanner, the fNIRS resembles a hat with multiple sensors that is placed on the subject’s head.
Now we are launching a project with INSEAD in Paris that will use this device. The project involves consumer research: how people choose products, why they sometimes choose healthy food and sometimes not, and which areas of the brain are activated.
We are also focused on developing in another interesting area — working with our partnering physicists to create new types of sensors for studying the brain that have unique properties and sensitivity. And basements are especially well-suited for this as well! Recording the magnetic component of brain activity usually requires very complex experimental conditions that are insulated from external influences.
Our goal is to create sensors that can capture the magnetic component of brain activity under more ordinary, less demanding conditions so that we won't need to build expensive rooms that are insulated from magnetic waves. That is, the technology should become accessible to everyone. These sensors will have unique properties, even compared to their Western counterparts.
In the future, we would like to create the first device for analysing the magnetic component of brain activity. This is an important area of our work. We hope that our centre will also become a testing ground for the development of new technologies, new high-tech devices for scientific work.
— How has the pandemic affected the work of your institute? What is happening now in terms of international cooperation?
— The pandemic is a real disaster for laboratory research of the brain. All labs, including partner labs and medical centres, were closed for some time. For example, we temporarily lost access to studies using an MRI scanner. Of course, mobility, travel and international scientific communications also came to a complete halt.
On the other hand, the good thing about such an extreme situation is that we have become more attentive to our health and rules of hygiene, and we’ve learned to work remotely. We held several online events and conferences, including with international participation. This was an interesting experience that showed how many new opportunities modern technologies make possible.
The other day, I met with my graduate students online, and only partway through the meeting did it dawn on us that we were, in fact, on adjacent floors of the same building. This is how habitual online work has become.
But, of course, not being able to come see the labs and work on the equipment is a big challenge. Most of my colleagues complain that the face-to-face experience is still much richer than online communication. Before the pandemic, we had a never-ending stream of foreign researchers and I can only hope that it will resume next year. We will be busy setting up our equipment, getting our research in order and planning joint projects with this prospect in mind.
As recently as September, our graduate students travelled to Finland for a month to learn new methods and to work with new equipment that we have. This was the first such group trip in the last eighteen months, and we are very happy about it.
— In addition to managing the Institute, you head the International Laboratory of Social Neurobiology. What interesting research are you doing there?
— One of the main areas of our research is human decision-making in different social contexts. For example, we have a project that studies and compares how Russians and Finns perceive information and how differences in ways of thinking and cultural characteristics are superimposed on it. That is, we are trying to identify the influence of individual characteristics — types of thinking — and cultural contexts. We are also discussing the idea of comparing some of the features of how Armenians and Russians living in Moscow make decisions and perceive information.
We also research economic behaviour. This is connected with the idea of Nobel laureate Robert Shiller, who believes that much of our behaviour, including economic activity, is connected with the narrative we hear around us. All these narratives or stories either motivate or demotivate people to take certain economic actions.
We have an idea that it is often the narratives, the various stories that spread in society that influence the development of macroeconomic processes, and not vice versa. At the same time, we want to study how cultural and personal characteristics influence the perception of narratives.
We plan to conduct the experiments in Novosibirsk using an MRI scanner. With the help of methods borrowed from colleagues in Finland, we will be able to study how the brain reacts to extended dynamic information, such as a film or audiobook. In our case, subjects will be presented with specially modelled situations that are an economic narrative of sorts. This will be the world's first study of exactly how the brain responds to long-term dynamic economic information and subjects' subsequent economic decisions.
In many projects, we plan to study the brain's different reactions to narratives depending on the culture because different cultures have different ideas about economic activity, the norms of justice and so on.
— On this subject, how far has neuroscience gone in exploring justice and social norms?
— We have some research results that we plan to publish. In an experiment performed by my colleague Oxana Zinchenko, we temporarily suppressed the activity of the frontal lobe of the brain and found that this caused people to exhibit more prosocial behaviour.
Economic-based social games are commonly used in research. For example, subjects are presented with a situation in which they receive a certain amount of money and know that there is a person in the next room with whom they can share it. This experiment is called the Dictator Game. Given the opportunity, most people will share, but not evenly. The social norm is, of course, to share. And when their frontal lobes are temporarily suppressed, the subjects begin sharing a little more actively.
In general, the extent to which people are naturally prosocial is almost a philosophical or religious question. Scientists are split into two camps in this regard. Some believe that we are ‘social animals’ by nature and that we have an intrinsic social motive to share. And that when we do not share, it is because we switch on rational mechanisms and reasoning — for example, we argue that we are paying off an expensive mortgage and so we need to keep that money ourselves. Switching on this rational motive forces a person to suppress his natural inclination to do good to others. The frontal lobe is involved in this function.
The other camp of scientists believes that, on the contrary, we are egoists by nature and that norms are the result of culture and come into play only when it is necessary to share.
Our results are consistent with the first, prosocial model: man is most likely a ‘prosocial animal’. And when we deliberately act selfishly, we are most likely using a rational decision-making system that is associated with the frontal regions.
Of course, these results cannot be extrapolated to all people and all situations. For example, we studied healthy people, but patients might behave differently. But these results generally indicate that methods probably exist by which it is possible to engage people's natural tendency to help others.
— Some time ago, you also said that you had plans to study how, from the point of view of neuroscience, a person chooses a partner. Have you made any progress on this?
— We have put this project on the back burner because of the pandemic, but I think we will resume in the near future. We would like to test a new version of the theory of how people choose partners, the so-called ‘Theory of Sexual Conflict’. The traditional thinking is that men and women have fundamentally different strategies for choosing partners. Women are interested in a constant partner who will invest in the child because women are more personally invested in raising children. But men, according to the classical understanding, are more superficial and programmed for multiple partners.
The views on this concept have undergone a revolution. Research shows that everything depends on the context. Men and women can adopt very similar strategies depending on the conditions in which the decision is made. One of the major factors is the number of potential partners a person can meet. We would like to test how these new approaches work.
— You also research the perception of the urban environment. Has this produced any results?
— In one project, we studied how people perceive the area around residential buildings. Other countries devote a lot of attention to landscaping, to making beautiful and comfortable spaces around residential buildings. The landscape architects and urbanists with whom we work are very much a part of the international professional community, and they were surprised at how little people in Russia pay attention to the quality of their immediate environment.
For now, we can tentatively say that one’s perception of the area around their home largely depends on, for example, whether that person has a car. Landscaping definitely elicits positive emotions. We used fairly simple methods, eye trackers and followed the subject’s gaze and simulated a situation in which they rented an apartment and looked at pictures of the surrounding neighbourhood. It turned out that the more a person pays attention to the landscaping, the more he likes the neighbourhood, but the more he focuses on parking, the less positive is his perception of the area. However, this largely depends on whether the person has a car. That is, it seems that there is a certain clash of interests between people who own a vehicle and those who do not.
Another study is devoted to the general perception of urban space — parks, highways, etc. Initial results indicate that our brain works very differently in different urban spaces. I hope to share these results with you in a couple of months when we complete that project.
In conclusion, I would like to underscore, especially for my colleagues at HSE, that our research centre is open for cooperation! We are already conducting several projects with our fellow linguists, urbanists, IT specialists, psychologists, economists and many others. If you have a scientific idea at the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and your discipline, we are always happy to discuss and implement it!
Photographer: Daniil Prokofiev
Thanks to Kirill Makas, Institute of Cognitive Neurosciences research trainee, for help in organising the filming.