A decade of multidisciplinary brain and cognition research in Leiden
The Leiden Institute of Brain and Cognition (LIBC) was initiated in 2006 by three Leiden University professors: a neuroradiologist, a linguist and a psychologist. Why was LIBC founded, what has it contributed in the past decade and what are the new challenges lying ahead for Leiden University’s brain and cognition research?
Mark van Buchem, Lisa Cheng and Bernhard Hommel
In the nineties of the twentieth century, the exciting new technique of functional MRI entered the stage and all over the world neurologists and radiologists stood in awe: they could now see the brain at work! Professor of neuroradiology Mark van Buchem, who at the time was a resident in radiology at the Leiden University Medical Centre, recalls that he immediately started experimenting with it on evenings, when the scanners were mostly unoccupied.
Van Buchem: ‘During a fellowship of 15 months in Philadelphia I got more experience with fMRI, but it did not take me long to realise that in order to develop fMRI research and really profit from it, more was needed than a bunch of well-meaning medical doctors. We needed psychologists to set up decent experiments, we needed to know how the healthy brain works before we could study functional disorders. In short: we had to do this in a multidisciplinary way.’
So, some years later, when he had firmly settled in Leiden as chief of neuroradiology, Van Buchem started looking for partners from other faculties of the university and saw his plans fall on fertile soil. Psychologist Bernhard Hommel and linguist Lisa Cheng did not need much convincing.
‘The rest is history,’ Van Buchem says. ‘More Leiden researchers were eager to join and we successfully convinced the boards of both Leiden University and LUMC to invest in our newly founded Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition. Then we asked neuroscientist Serge Rombouts, who was a pioneer of fMRI in the Netherlands, to come to Leiden and become director of the LIBC and, somewhat later, professor of Methods of Cognitive Neuroimaging. And LIBC has come to bloom in a wonderful way.’
Carel ten Cate, Serge Rombouts and Niels Schiller
Of scanners and people
The scanners of the LUMC and, even more importantly, the whole support infrastructure that came with them, have been of crucial importance to researchers in other faculties of Leiden University, Hommel emphasizes. ‘Without the scanners, we would not have attracted such researchers as fMRI scientist Serge Rombouts, psycho- and neurolinguist Niels Schiller, clinical psychologist Bernet Elzinga, or developmental psychologist Eveline Crone, who has since then been awarded one research grant after another for her research into the adolescent brain. They have all formed very successful and proliferate research groups around them. And the people who were already here would not have brought in so much research funding as they have done. Without LIBC, I would definitely not have been awarded my ERC Advanced Grant.’
Wow, you guys have managed to collaborate with a university hospital!”
‘LIBC was the first structural attempt to bring cognitive neuroscience to Leiden, says professor of psychology Bernhard Hommel, who has just been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant to study the impact of will on our actual behaviour. ‘Colleagues abroad still marvel at the extent of our collaboration’. ‘Being affiliated with LIBC opens doors, linguistics professor Lisa Cheng, too, has experienced over the years. Cheng: ‘Interestingly, what people often say, is: “Wow, you guys have managed to collaborate with a university hospital!” Apparently, hospitals still have a reputation of being closed fortresses.’
Behavioural biologist Professor Carel ten Cate, based in the Faculty of Science, has also been one of the driving forces of LIBC. ‘Before LIBC, all cognitive scientists operated within their own faculties’, Ten Cate said, in an interview for the Leiden University newsletter in November 2016. ‘They knew next to nothing about what the others did. Through LIBC, I started collaborating with the linguists.’ This has resulted in a number of successful collaborative research and education projects, dealing with the comparative biology of language learning.
Catalyst for technology development
‘LIBC has brought great added value to Leiden linguistics, both in terms of sharing facilities and in terms of sharing knowledge,’ Cheng agrees. ‘Moreover, LIBC has been a great catalyst in technology development within the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics. In the beginning, the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences let us use their EEG lab and baby lab very generously. But over the last years, demand has become so high that we now have our own EEG-lab and baby lab. We have also invested in developing such new techniques as eye tracking and near infrared spectroscopy.’ Over the past decade, the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, too, has been investing in new innovative science labs, says Hommel. ‘And technological innovation has been a strong trigger for sharing knowledge: with the Faculty of Humanities, but also with the Faculty of Science and the faculty of Law.’
The appointment of psycho- and neurolinguist Niels Schiller, in 2006, was a collaborative effort of the faculty of Humanities and the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Science. ‘Until then, the discipline of neurolinguistics had been completely absent in Leiden’, says Cheng. ‘Now, experimental neurolinguistics has become firmly integrated in research and education in the Leiden University Centre of Linguistics.’
In 2005, Schiller, who had just delivered his inaugural lecture at Maastricht University, received a phone call from Leiden University with the invitation to join both the Faculty of Humanities and the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences as professor of psycho- and neurolinguistics, and function as a bridge between these two faculties. Schiller: ‘I had just about everything I wanted at the time, so I really had to think this over.’
One of the things that won him over was the fact that Leiden has long been famous for its research into non-Western languages. Schiller: ‘There are more than 7,000 languages in the world. But 95% of all publications in journals of psycho- and neuro-linguistics are about less than 10% of all these languages, and 50% deal with English. Only three non-European languages get some serious attention: Chinese, Japanese, and Hebrew. So, how can we possibly draw general conclusions about language when we disregard 90% of all languages?
‘Today, however, our PhD students conduct experimental research in such countries as Ethiopia and Morocco. We have invested in mobile eye trackers, and LUCL is now considering buying mobile EEG equipment. Experimental linguistics in all these under-studied languages is still in its infancy and Leiden can really pull its weight here.’
Challenges for the next decade
In the past decade, brain and cognition research has developed exponentially and has disciplines as criminology and research into discrimination. What will be the challenges for the next ten years?
Big data will be a game changer in brain and cognition research, all four professors emphasize. Mark van Buchem: ‘By using datasets containing data of millions of patients, and combining brain scans, genetic data and patient files, we can learn a lot about, say, the working of therapies or the early stages of dementia. Machine learning will be an indispensable aspect of this development.’
Schiller: ‘Our neuro-imaging and EEG-experiments generate huge amounts of data. We now need to store these data for future research, when we will tackle them with new research questions and new analytical methods.’
New imaging techniques
In the next years, new techniques will enter the stage and move the field of brain and cognition ahead. Van Buchem: ‘There will be new developments in MRI. Functional MRI is an umbrella term for a number of techniques that have been developed over the past decades. In the Leiden University Medical Centre, Serge Rombouts has been very successful in developing resting state fMRI and pharmacological fMRI. There is still a lot to do in these two areas and there will of course be other new developments.’
In linguistics, too, new techniques are impatient to enter the stage. Lisa Cheng: ‘Virtual reality will become important, as will near infrared spectrometry, a non-invasive visualisation technique which can be used for linguistic experiments with small children. And much is still to be gained from combining existing techniques.’
Yet another promising technique is transcranial magnetic stimulation, which can be used to temporarily suppress specific brain areas. Niels Schiller: ‘This is definitely on our wish list because it allows you to draw causal inferences. But then we also need researchers who can work with it. However, 10 years ago we had no people who could work with EEG or MRI and that has also sorted itself out.’
Lisa Cheng: ‘The real added value will lie in the exchange of knowledge about all these new technologies. LIBC has paved the way for this and should again assume a leading role, by challenging researchers to learn from other disciplines.’
For the social and behavioural science, too, digital developments such as big data, modelling and virtual reality will become more and more important, says Hommel. ‘And this will raise fundamental questions about identity: what is your identity in cyberspace, or in virtual reality? And one of the most interesting developments will be the vanishing of borders between sub-disciplines. We researchers use everyday language terms such as cognition, emotion, or motivation. But, of course, nowhere in the brain, or in real life, there are signs saying: “You are now leaving the emotional sector and entering the sector of cognition”. Cognitive psychologists also deal with emotion and social psychologists deal with cognition. Within LIBC, we have been working in this way for some time now. This blurring of boundaries is already visible in the labour market; young people hop from medicine to biology and from biology to physics. For universities, this is a very interesting development.’
Here is a link to a summery of some facts and figures from the last years: Facts and figures 2006-2016