Helsinki Brain & Mind promotes high-quality neuroresearch and its utilisation 

Helsinki Brain & Mind (HB&M) is a regional node of Neurocenter Finland’s national Brain & Mind network. 

The end of 2022 was marked by the official founding of Helsinki Brain & Mind. The network brings together neuroscience researchers from the University of Helsinki, Aalto University and HUS Helsinki University Hospital to advance interdisciplinary collaboration, research, and innovation. Now that the official papers have been signed, it is a good time to look back on how the network came to be what it is today.  

Currently, brain diseases cause human suffering and significant costs globally. To combat this problem, interdisciplinary cooperation should be strengthened and research infrastructures further developed.  

“A major challenge for increasing the quality of research even further has been its fragmentation as it is carried out in six different faculties and HiLIFE in the University of Helsinki, and several departments and clinics in the Helsinki University Hospital, and Aalto University,” says Jari Koistinaho, Director of Helsinki Institute of Life Science HiLIFE

Finland’s largest scientific institutions, the University of Helsinki, Aalto University, and HUS Helsinki University Hospital, have united to drive change. This change is called Helsinki Brain & Mind. 

“As the expertise in the University of Helsinki as well as in Aalto University has been largely complementary (neurobiology, psychology, clinical neuroscience at the UH, imaging and computational neuroscience at Aalto), initiatives for cooperation were raised soon after the foundation of the Neuroscience Center,” says Eero Castrén, Research Director at the Neuroscience Center, and active participant in the creation of a neuroscience network. 

Helsinki Brain & Mind (HB&M) began its journey with the decision to investigate the state of Finnish neuroscience and its potential to solve significant brain health challenges. This investigation was a collaborative effort by the University of Helsinki, University of Eastern Finland, and University of Turku, funded by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, and led by Anne Patana, the current operative leader of HB&M. The results showed a need for a national neuroscience network. Spurred on by a meeting called by Professor of Neurology at the University of Helsinki and Chief Physician at HUS, Perttu Lindsberg, the Brain & Mind network with its regional nodes began to take shape, as did Neurocenter Finland, the network’s coordinating node. 

The development was accelerated by the Helsinki Network Brain & Mind ERDF project, funded by the Helsinki-Uusimaa Regional Council. A network-like hub for all things neuroscience was forming in the capital region. In November 2022, all the paperwork was signed, and Helsinki Brain & Mind was officially founded. 

Currently, HB&M is a lively community of researchers and operative staff guided by Patana, HiLIFE Neuroscience Center, and the HB&M steering group. The network supports neuroscience research and its further development and fosters collaboration between researchers and businesses to develop new innovations. HB&M strives to integrate neuroscientific knowledge as a more robust part of society and ensure that the significance of neuroresearch is reflected in its funding. 

“We aim to reduce the financial burden of brain disease by encouraging collaboration between basic, technology, and clinical research,” says Patana. She believes this will take many steps, such as increasing multidisciplinary collaboration and advancing the utilisation of research findings. HB&M is promoting these in its operations. 

At the end of the road lies a population with flourishing neuroscience research and improved brain health. 

What is HB&M’s role in making this happen? And what has been done so far? 

Building bridges between different fields of research 

HB&M consists of the University of Helsinki, Aalto University, and the HUS Helsinki University Hospital. It brings researchers from different fields of study together to solve the challenges of brain health. 

“HB&M is working to bring together a core network of experts with their own national and international connections to pool their know-how and create new insight,” elaborates Patana. 

Patana, her team, and the neuroscience community work together to identify needs in the field of brain health and advance solutions to them. For instance, the ongoing Brain health through digitalisation project, planned together with network member Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence FCAI, is led by Patana at the University of Helsinki, Lauri Parkkonen at Aalto University, and Daniel Strbian at HUS, and consists of multiple pilot projects that 16 PI-level scientists and many other operators have taken part in. 

“Neuroscience is an exceptionally complex field. Its research requires a wide range of expertise ranging from neurology to biology, psychiatry, and technical sciences, to name a few,” says Tiina Paunio, Professor at the University of Helsinki, HUS, and THL, and Director of the Sleepwell Research Program, “Through HB&M, we have gotten acquainted with researchers from other campuses, and have been able to learn from other disciplines, such as neurology or neurophysiology.” 

Supporting research 

HB&M has collected a list of available research infrastructures in the Uusimaa region, like relevant laboratories, biobanks, and diagnostic equipment. The list can be found on HB&M’s website. The network has also created a neuroscience research portal listing PI-level researchers in the capital region. The portal can be used to search for collaborators according to relevant keywords. 

“HBM has catalysed contacting clinical researchers, which has helped us increase the impact of our research. HBM has also streamlined some of the tedious legal processes needed for handling data from humans,” says Professor Lauri Parkkonen at the Dept. of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering, and Director of Aalto Brain Centre. 

One of the tasks for HBM’s ongoing project is to develop requirements for new databanks for both brain data and sleep data. “Led by Aalto University’s lawyer, Maria Rehbinder, and Professor Parkkonen, we even lobbied to expand the legal definition of a biobank sample to include digital data samples without the need for a physical sample,” says Patana. 

The challenges seen in handling brain data in research led to a larger investigation on the regulation and interpretations of how personal data should be managed in research. The report has been released to the public along with a tool that can assist researchers in understanding what laws apply to their work. 

“HB&M brings together the multidisciplinary neuroscience research of the capital region and the network surrounding it,” says HBM’s Specialist Anni Kinnari, “We focus on identifying the key needs of the neuroscience field together with our community and develop HB&M to emphasise research and its significance in different areas.” 

Facilitating innovation and commercial collaboration 

HB&M’s role is to be the driving force that brings together scientists and decision-makers from both industry and society to create new innovations. HB&M has taken part in planning projects funded by Business Finland. Recently, it has been supporting the use of various co-innovation methods, such as NeuroBiodesign (in close collaboration with Biodesign Finland) and Co-created Health and Wellbeing (CoHeWe). 

The result of the former project, hentoTouch, has already gained Business Finland’s Research to Business -funding and is well on its way to being commercialised

The latter project has identified challenges in the HUS New Children’s Hospital as well as the Health Village -platform and is currently looking for solutions and collaboration with companies. 

HB&M is also in active, multidisciplinary collaboration with other innovation ecosystems and industrial partners to develop new, innovative brain health solutions. 

“We have begun our investigation of researcher-business collaboration,” says HB&M’s Business Developer, Oona Rechardt, “Companies have reacted very positively to our contacts. There is clearly a need for a network like ours that links together researchers and companies.” 

Working to advance neuroscience education

High-quality neuroscience education ensures the excellence of future research, which is why HB&M supports the further development of education. 

HB&M has put together a Workgroup for Education, led by Professor Juha Voipio, to analyse the current educational offering and to build online courses to respond to the digitalisation in education. The first online course will be released soon; 29 researchers from the capital region (a total of 49 researchers, many of which are PI-level scientists) contributed significantly to the production of the course materials. 

The pilot of an online course received positive reviews and will be launched in spring 2023. 

Promoting the success stories of the neuroscience community

The cutting-edge neuroscience research and the impact it brings to the Uusimaa region should be brought out from behind the walls of institutions. One of HB&M’s main missions is to spread the word about the work the neuroscientist community is doing to advance neuroscience in Finland. 

“To reach our ambitious goals, we need the right message to find the right receiver. We hope to encourage the neuroscience community to actively share their findings and communicate about the potential impact to the society,” says Carita Salminen, HB&M’s Communications Specialist. 

HB&M collects neuroscience news from the capital region to share on one platform, making it easy for the whole community to stay up to date on relevant topics. Currently, news is gathered and published in the HB&M newsletter to give an overview of research across a wide array of studies. Upcoming events are compiled into the HBM neuroscience events calendar. In the future, we hope to have a continuously updated website where relevant neuroscience news and information can be easily found. 

Neuroscience researchers stand to benefit from collaborating with HB&M, as Nina Forss, Director of HUS Neurocenter and Adjunct Professor at the Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering, describes:  

“HB&M can promote projects that aim to reduce practical problems of clinical researchers, such as difficulties in interpreting research legislation and guidelines,” says Forss, “Such a network may also coordinate and promote the acquisition and maintenance of expensive research infrastructure.” 

A significant goal for HB&M is to uphold conversation about the pressing questions in the neuroscience community. Finland’s ageing population and the increasing prevalence of mental disorders need to be addressed. HB&M aims to bring attention to such issues in societal discussion. 

The expansive possibilities of neuroscience and the imaginative neuroscience researchers inspire Patana and her team in their work. It’s important to be on the side of people, and the whole team is committed to do their part to advance neuroscience. The operations of HB&M are built through interaction with the neuroscience community. All thoughts and questions about the network’s development are welcome. 

Read neuroscience news from the Uusimaa region in the Helsinki Brain & Mind newsletter

People mentioned in this story:

Jari Koistinaho 
Director of Helsinki Institute of Life Science HiLIFE at the University of Helsinki 

Eero Castrén 
Research Director of the Neuroscience Center at the University of Helsinki 

Anne Patana 
Head of Development at Helsinki Brain & Mind, University of Helsinki 

Perttu Lindsberg 
Professor of Neurology at the University of Helsinki 
Chief Physician at HUS Helsinki University Hospital 

Lauri Parkkonen 
Professor at the Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering 
Director of Aalto Brain Centre 

Daniel Strbian
Chief doctor, Division of Emergency Neurology and Neurocritical care at HUS Helsinki University Hospital
Director, Research & Development at HUS Helsinki University Hospital
Director, Stroke Trials Unit at HUS Helsinki University Hospital

Tiina Paunio 
Professor of Psychiatry at the Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Helsinki 
Chief Physician at the Department of Psychiatry, Brain Center, Helsinki University Hospital 
Program Director at SleepWell, Faculty of Medicine, University of Helsinki 
Director of the Doctoral Programme in Clinical Research, Faculty of Medicine, University of Helsinki 
Research Professor at the National Institute for Health and Welfare 

Maria Rehbinder 
Senior Legal Counsel at Aalto University 

Anni Kinnari 
Specialist at Helsinki Brain & Mind, University of Helsinki 

Oona Rechardt 
Business Developer at Helsinki Brain & Mind, Aalto University 

Juha Voipio  
Professor at the Department of Biosciences of University of Helsinki 

Carita Salminen 
Communications Specialist at Helsinki Brain & Mind, University of Helsinki 

Nina Forss 
Director of HUS Neurocenter at the Helsinki University Hospital  
Adjunct Professor at the Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering, Aalto University