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Q&A: ERC grantee explains why patience is crucial in science

15 Dec 2017

Dr Kenneth Hugdahl of the University of Bergen speaks about his research into auditory hallucination, why meaningful scientific advancement takes time and how the European Research Council (ERC) is integral in making it happen.

By Cais Jurgens, Vision2020

In the last century, humanity has produced more world changing, scientific and technological breakthroughs than we can ultimately wrap our collective heads around.

With this in mind, it is important to note that scientific progress can be slow. The breakthroughs that lead to a lasting impact on our everyday lives require a great deal of patience.  

To a society living in the age of instant, short term, social media induced dopamine highs, it is easy to forget that the very technology we take for granted may have required a lifetime of research to produce. The medicine and drugs we ingest from the corner pharmacy once began as a simple question in the mind of a scientist and now cost next to nothing to obtain.

One would almost think that this kind of innovation happens overnight, and as a society, we grow impatient and maybe even resentful that some of the world’s most pressing problems have not yet been sent the way of smallpox or compacted into a handheld device.

In light of this mood, I had the great pleasure to sit down for a chat with Dr Kenneth Hugdahl from the University of Bergen in Norway.

Dr Hugdahl explained to me the reasoning behind the virtue of patience in science, the endlessness of the possibilities we have before us and how the European Research Council (ERC) has shown a willingness to foster a culture of scientific breakthroughs that will have a lasting impact on society.

Q&A

Vision2020: Dr Hugdahl, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. How did you first become involved with the ERC, why did you decide to apply for an ERC grant and what were the incentives?

Kenneth Hugdahl: Back in 2008 when the ERC was less well known, I was contacted by the research administration department at the University of Bergen and they asked if I’d be interested in submitting a proposal.

Although I didn’t know much about the ERC at the time, the concept was extremely appealing to me because for once I felt that a funding programme was making the distinction, that I have also made, between “science” and “research.”

We don’t often make this distinction because normally, we think of these terms as being synonymous. To me, science is about having an idea.

As I understand, it doesn’t matter to the ERC if you can guarantee a definite impact on society in the short term, it’s whether or not you have a novel, scientific idea that has potential. From my point of view, the ERC recognises this distinction and because of their bottom-up approach to discovery, they are representative of “science.”

To make a further distinction, many other funding programmes available at the time that I was contacted, as well as today, first need a collaborative network or consortium before they can go anywhere.

The ERC, however, avoids first deciding on an umbrella topic to start with, it went the other way around. Essentially, the strategy of the ERC is to say “we will fund anything, as long as it passes our quality test.” So when the research department contacted me, naturally I said yes, that would be appealing... But why me?

At the time, I was researching speech perception, how is it organised in the brain and what happens within the brain when we are listening to someone talking to us. While the ERC would not simply fund my research as it was happening, they would fund a new idea, which could be initially based on that research.

Vision2020: And that idea turned into your current area of research?

KH: Exactly! And then it struck me, that hearing a voice coming from the inside is similar to hearing a voice coming from the outside, with the important difference being that there is no outer source to explain the experience. I had the idea that maybe inner voices activate the same areas and pathways in the brain that would be used to process outside speech.  

So I wrote up the grant based on that question. What happens in the brain when we are hearing voices that do not exist? To my great surprise, the panel liked that idea and encouraged me to apply my previous research to this new area of my research.

Vision2020: What sparked your initial interest in auditory hallucination?

KH: An auditory hallucination is like hearing a voice without an acoustic source to trace it back to.  There are no sound waves hitting the ear to set in motion the neural processes that lead to the perception or sensing of a sound, or in this case, a voice.

Therefore, discovering the origin of an inner voice would be fascinating and in addition to being a question related to consciousness and the complexities of the mind, it could also have a great benefit for society in the long term.

For example, hearing an inner voice is a major symptom in schizophrenia, which is one of the most severe mental disorders that we know of and is a huge burden on society, individuals and families.  By understanding the mechanisms that cause inner voices and other symptoms that objectively do not exist, we can eventually set new treatment targets, and develop better diagnostics.

The fact that I could foresee a societal impact arise from what I consider to be a basic scientific question really sparked my interest. I knew I had the methods to undertake this study and that if the answers came out to our hypothesis, this could lead to better treatment for a very serious disorder.

This brings me back around to my first point, which is why I’m so fond of the ERC. To me, the initial idea is the most important thing. The ERC then recognises that idea and works to empower scientists by helping them build it up, step by step, into a huge project with long term societal impact.

Vision2020: How could your current projects fit in with the ERC=science2 project, Senses?

This is a fascinating campaign and if I have understood it correctly, it studies how we relate to the outer world using our five basic senses and asks whether or not we could manipulate those senses to our benefit using technology.

I don’t just mean “senses” in the way our body responds to outer stimuli, as I think it could also include the senses that come from our “inner world.” Hallucinations, or the general misrepresentation of believing that something inside is coming from the outside, fits perfectly in this category.

To that end, as we develop artificial intelligence, is it perhaps possible that robots or other machines will one day hallucinate?

If a machine can be intelligent, is there an end to that intelligence and could it eventually become so advanced that it has the same kind of pathology and abnormalities that can develop within the human brain? To get back to the key point, this project connects our outer senses with our inner world. I believe that auditory hallucination sits right in between, because it is the belief that I am responding to something from the outer world when in fact, the opposite is true.  

I think this might also be an interesting twist to the very concept of senses, in that they don’t only go in one direction. While receiving and acting on information from the outside is the main aspect of our senses, it is important to consider that we are also aware and conscious of our own thoughts, which is kind of an inner sense in itself.  

Vision2020: What would you say are the objectives of your two current projects, Voices, which is finished and On/Off, which is ongoing?

KH: In the first project I was out to answer the question of what’s going on in the brain when an individual is hearing voices artificially. Where in the brain do these voices come from, how is brain chemistry changing, how are the neurons reacting, what kind of impulses are they sending between themselves to create this inner sense?

We were able to find some answers to those questions, but then another question struck me when I was about to write the second proposal. After all that research, one big unanswered question remained, and that was why aren’t these hallucinations constant?

Why do they seem to fluctuate over time, and start and stop almost spontaneously? We were so focused on what makes them start, we hadn’t yet thought to ask ourselves an equally important and simple question, what makes them stop?

If we could figure that out, and particularly how the chemistry of the brain is changing when the neurons are signaling the hallucinations to stop, we could find new targets for treatment to prolong the “peacetime.” That includes developing new drugs that mimic the chemistry in the brain that turns off a hallucination, and maybe even prevents them from ever starting again.

Vision2020: Is this what you are hoping to discover by going for the second grant?

KH: Yes, so in this new proposal I’m asking one simple question, why do hallucinations fluctuate?  In a sense, the rest of the proposal fills in to that one question, so there is a direct progression from the first project into the second.

If I hadn’t had the first project, I probably never would have asked the second question, or written the second proposal.  

Vision2020: Why do you feel it is important for the general public to be aware of the kind of research going on at the University of Bergen and that the ERC is trying to promote, even if it doesn’t directly affect them today?

KH: This relates, in my view, to my point that the ERC is a science funder rather than a research funder. Without these initial scientific ideas, we wouldn’t end up with much to apply directly to society because we wouldn’t know enough about the mechanisms that cause changes or phenomenon in nature, in general.

To bring this back to your question about my own projects, it is my view that we could probably not understand schizophrenia without basic science, and a basic understanding of the mechanisms that cause auditory hallucinations.

Without these basic understandings, we’ll just end up manufacturing medications that treat the symptoms of a disease, instead of understanding the root cause.

Therefore, I don’t see a conflict between what the ERC is doing in the long term and what the politicians and policy-makers and the general public see in the short term. Furthermore, without breakthroughs at the basic levels, there will be media headlines that promise much more than can be delivered.

The ERC provides a platform for a solid breakthrough of knowledge and in that way, at least to the University of Bergen but I imagine to many others as well, is the most important and most prestigious funding source in European academia today.

Vision2020 is an Open Innovation platform for research organisations & businesses seeking funding from the European Union's €80 billion 'Horizon 2020' programme.  Vision2020 is a partner of the ERC=Science² project.

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