Computational models for a better overall understanding of the brain

Satu Palva, Director of the Neuroscience Center, intends to increase its translational research and introduce computational models. She describes neuroscience as a field with a great deal of innovation potential.

Brain diseases are the most expensive public health problem in Finland. Their high costs increase the urgent need to better understand brain function.

“For now, we understand a few elements of the complex brain system at different levels, but we don’t yet know how these elements work together across levels, for example, how genes affect human brain function,” says Director Satu Palva of the Neuroscience Center under the University of Helsinki’s Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE).

Palva began her five-year term in February 2024. Her goal is to integrate the Center’s research across various scales.

“We conduct rigorous research in areas including stem cells, neurobiology and systemic neuroscience. Next, we will strengthen links across different scales of research, for example, by investing in systemic and computational neuroscience,” says Palva.

Introducing computational methods in research

Computational methods have evolved drastically in the past decade. Palva believes the next breakthrough in neuroscience will depend on data. 

“At the Neuroscience Center, we’re promoting integrative computational neuroscience. It’s a new field globally, with work being conducted in only a few locations,” she points out.

Large datasets can strengthen overall understanding of the brain.

“In practice, after collecting data, we can create computational models that explain interactions between different levels of the brain, from cells to behaviour and cognition.”

Innovation in almost all groups

Palva considers innovation to be the strength of the Neuroscience Center. 

“Almost all of our groups engage in some kind of innovation, in which researchers have taken a step towards practical solutions.”

This can be partly attributed to the current stage of neuroscience: as a young field, it has plenty of potential and room to grow.

“The number of innovations is expected to grow significantly in neuroscience. We also have a number of researchers with extensive research experience who are at a career stage in which innovations come naturally,” she states.

Cross-disciplinary appeal

Palva has long studied brain networks, including their functional connections. At the Neuroscience Center, she has had her own group since 2011. 

Working with the group, she has discovered how functional connections and brain rhythms coordinate human cognitive function, such as attention and working memory. 

“It’s like taking snapshots of the world and combining them into larger sets,” she says.

Originally, Palva was drawn to neuroscience because of her interest in the human mind. 

 “It’s an exceptionally cross-disciplinary mix of fields such as psychology, biology, the natural sciences and engineering. You get to challenge yourself all the time, figuring out how to analyse complicated datasets.”

Outside work, Palva enjoys life with her Australian Shepherds and renovating her cottage. 

She is enthusiastic about her term as director of the Neuroscience Center. 

“It’s a role that offers me new opportunities to facilitate neuroscience research.”

Satu Palva
  • Neuroscientist and director of the University of Helsinki Neuroscience Center since 1 February 2024
  • Professor at the University of Glasgow in Scotland since 2018
  • Leader of the research group Systems and Computational Neuroscience