Making Waves

Can a wheelchair be moved by thought alone? Can a terrorist be identified by the size of the pupil of his eye? The Technion's brain research laboratory is working on breakthroughs that will change our lives.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon


One computer

This isn't the first time she has come to the dimly lit brain laboratory on the old campus of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. "It's summer vacation and it's good to be able to earn a few shekels," she explains and hastily straightens her green tank top. "There was a notice about the experiment on the bulletin board in my department. The experiments conducted in the laboratory are well known among the students. I've been here twice. They advertise in all the faculties and send us e-mails. We can sign up whenever we like and a few days later we are invited to be a subject in the experiment. I got NIS 30 for letting them see what was going on inside my head for seven minutes. I have no idea what was in there or what they saw. I didn't feel a thing."

Irit Pishenko, a student of 25 from the Technion's department of chemical engineering, smiles bashfully as she leaves the darkened room.

"In principle I deal with brain processes and decision-making," he says in a rather weary tone, sitting in a Spartan, windowless room. "Before coming to the Technion I worked in a psychiatric hospital for the mentally ill, diagnosing neurological deviations in schizophrenics. For my master's I dealt more with decision- making in industry, but gradually I became more interested in the study of the brain and decision-making.


Physiological emphasis

After the system is checked, Hochman will begin the central experiment, which is part of a wide-ranging, ongoing project examining the brain's response to losses and gains.

Hochman: "There are theories that originated with Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky, to the effect that people hate loss and love gain. Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize a few years ago for his contribution to economics and psychology in this realm. Together with Tversky, he argued that loss is far more painful in its intensity than the pleasure we feel after gaining something - that we attribute far greater weight to losses than to gains. Kahneman and Tversky put forward this thesis at the behavioral level, but it was largely theoretical, and there have been few attempts to test the theory directly. We are showing it at the physiological level and are now making final corrections in the second version of an article on the subject, which is due to be published in a leading journal about decision-making."

To this end, the subjects in the experiment were asked to operate a "money machine," which responds to pressure on two buttons on a computer.

"In some cases the subjects can gain by pressing a button, and in others they lose," explains Hochman. "Throughout the experiment they are connected to an EEG and the electrodes measure their brain waves. The goal is to explain what happens in the brain when one experiences loss or gain. We examined people's neurological reaction after they lost and after they saw they gained, to discover whether there is a difference in the activity of the brain. We found that there is a difference: Physiologically, there is greater emotional arousal associated with losses than with gains; in other words, a loss has a more powerful physiological effect than a gain.

"But we came up with something else new, too. We argue that the effect occurs at the physiological level even when the subject does not evidence greater emotion to losses at the behavioral level. We think these findings show that losses play a distinctive role in decision-making, because they reflect the degree of risk a decision carries."

But the discoveries in the laboratory on Mount Carmel also have a positive applied side that is quite astonishing in its boldness.

Hochman: "[Senior Technion lecturer] Dr. Eldad Yechiam and Dr. Antoine Bechara, a senior American brain researcher, and I examined, for example, brain-damaged patients and showed that the frontal lobe of the brain itself 'represents' the sequence of time from its forward section to its rear section: If the rear section of the frontal lobe - which represents the past - is damaged, you ignore what happened previously and deal exclusively with the here and now. In other words, people with damage to the rear part of the frontal lobe tend to make decisions that may be fine cognitively, but without factoring in the past.

"Research of this kind leads to a different approach to the treatment of brain damage, as it allows me to understand that in certain cases, it will not help to tell the patient, 'You are making poor decisions and must look what this is doing to you.'"

What was the past approach to the treatment of brain-damaged people in regard to decision-making?

"The view was that people with brain damage focus mainly on the positive results of their decisions, and because they do not look at the loss aspect, they tend to make impulsive decisions. We show that they make these impulsive decisions not because they focus on gain, but because they cannot factor in the events of the past. You find the same pattern in drug addicts. They too have damage in the same areas of the fontal lobe, and their impulsiveness is also due to the fact that when they make decisions, they do not take into account the totality of factors. These are new approaches which we are trying to promote in the scientific community, in the hope that they will help us to understand problems faced by people with brain damage so that we can help with their treatment and rehabilitation."


Man as machine

Pardo follows a routine: "When a subject arrives I explain to him what he will undergo, exactly what I am going to attach to his head, what he is going to hear. First I measure the diameter of his head to see which headpiece fits, then I put it on him and attach the electrodes - each electrode detects a specific wave in the brain. I spread a special gel on each electrode with a syringe. The gel serves as a conductor of electricity, enabling us to read the impulses that are sent and to observe the subject's cerebral reaction. After I complete that procedure I leave the room and run the software ... All I do is document what happens."

Conversations are brief during the experiments, but can help alleviate the tension, he notes: "There is no need for talking, because it isn't relevant to the experiments. Nothing the subject will tell me is important; I am measuring specific cerebral impulses, not behavior. For the experiment it really doesn't matter who you are or where you're from. So personal interaction is not obligatory, but it does make the experiment more pleasant. And speaking of interaction, I noticed the guys complain more about the pricking of the electrodes. The girls usually sit quietly. The guys jump around in the chair as though I were administering Chinese torture. In general, people from the Technion are a bit more grumpy and stressed. You see it by their behavior, their curt responses."

Dr. Yechiam, who teaches in the Technion's faculty of industrial engineering and management, elaborates at length on the project and seems to pin great hopes on the goings-on in the lab.

In what way is your laboratory different from similar facilities in other local universities?

Yechiam: "Ours is not a mainstream brain laboratory, in the sense that we do not focus on brain research as the main goal. We use measurement of cerebral processes as one of the tools and methods to study the human being. In my opinion, this is part of a general phenomenon in which more and more labs are using brain research as an additional tool to cope with research issues. The two areas in which our lab specializes are decision-making and the acquisition of complex skills. We use cerebral indices to confirm our hypotheses. We have added the laboratory to the behavioral tools."

Is there a discovery or invention that will emerge from here of which you are particularly proud?

"The finger probe is a distinctive Israeli invention which was conceived here and developed by the president-elect of the Technion, Prof. Peretz Lavie. It's an instrument that measures arterial tone in the finger and shows the amount of blood the arterioles contain. The idea is that when people are engaged in strenuous effort, their blood races out of the arterioles and toward central vessels such as the heart and the brain. This indicates a certain type of arousal. We found, for example, that this instrument is able to detect lies better than the polygraph [lie detector].

"In another new study we showed it is possible to predict risk-taking by examining the size of the pupil of the eye. We found that people who have small pupils tend to take bigger risks, especially when the risk may include losses. This discovery has applications for airports or subways in which one wants to profile potential terrorists, for example. In the absence of historical data about people, we can theoretically use the messages the body broadcasts to predict their future behavior. Of all the autonomous and arousal indices, only the pupil can be easily seen, and can thus serve as a tool to predict future risky or violent behavior. Progress in this field of research can definitely change the future."

How are the studies funded?

"A European foundation called Skills finances our activity. The Science Ministry and Israeli foundations are providing less and less support for research, but we are seeing an increase in funding from European institutions for Israeli researchers. Israel today puts money into a common basket of research grants and we receive part of the proceeds. The grants from the Science Ministry are on average $100,000 for a researcher for three years, while the European grants are around ten times as high. That's something to think about." W