The head of Behavioural Neurology-research unit, Associate Professor Kaisa Hartikainen has been leading her research group at the Tampere University Hospital since 2011. Her research focuses on brain mechanisms behind cognition, emotion and behaviour and how they are altered due to brain damage, disorder or neuromodulation treatment. She is also actively involved in projects aiming for common good related to the promotion of brain health in the society, such as the successful Sustainable Brain Health project, and the recently launched National Brain Health Programme coordinated by the Finnish Brain Association.
In addition to her background as a clinical neurologist, Kaisa has a multi-disciplinary research background, ranging from cellular physiology to behavioural neurology and experimental psychology and she has worked as a researcher at the laboratory of signal processing at Tampere Technical University. Over a period of eight years, she worked as a researcher in the fields of cognitive and affective neuroscience and behavioural neurology in University of California (UC) Davis, UC Berkeley and UCSF, Memory and Aging Center.
During her time in the US, one of her main interests was the role of frontal lobes in emotion and attention, and their interaction. She worked with patients and research focused on individuals with a brain damage or a brain disorder, such as frontal lesion or frontotemporal dementia, which impacted the frontal lobes. The interest was how a specific focal frontal lesion, for example orbitofrontal lesion, or a more diffuse frontal disorder impacts cognitive, affective and attentional brain functions.
The latest in research
One of the latest research interests of Kaisa is occupational burnout, which in the recent years has grown into a global pandemic. Burnout is known to endanger both brain health and general wellbeing, hence it is of paramount importance not to overly strain our brains without adequate recovery. It is also important to find easy ways to identify the first signs of burnout, so one can intervene at the earliest stage possible.
The latest research project, published today at Brain Sciences journal, focused on the effects of burnout on cognition, physiology, and physical activity. Heart rate and physical activity were measured using wearable sensors, and the study subjects filled in questionnaires screening for burnout, depression, and executive functions.
Individuals suffering from burnout had higher average heartbeat, less physical activity and they had more challenges in executive functions in daily life. The study also shows a clear correlation between executive functions and cardiac function. The novel results open interesting new opportunities using wearable sensors as a method to identify burnout at an earlier stage. Could burnout be diagnosed earlier and faster using wearable sensors and the parameters used in this study?
Collaboration facilitates new research directions
Applying wearable sensors is in fact one of the newer research interests of Kaisa. This interest emerged thanks to a meeting organised by Neurocenter Finland, where an old research collaboration back in 90’s between Kaisa and professor of signal processing Tarmo Lipping was reactivated. The aim of the collaboration is to develop an easy-to-use sensor-system to monitor one’s brain health, which would enable monitoring workload e.g. at a workplace. The system would utilise wearable EEG-technology, and EEG-based brain health and wellbeing biomarkers developed by Kaisa’s group.
In addition, Kaisa is interested in non-invasive neuromodulation treatments which could be used to support and normalise brain’s affective and cognitive functions. Kaisa’s group has previously shown that invasive vagus nerve stimulation improves working memory of patients suffering from drug-resistant epilepsy. However, the currently used invasive neuromodulators can only be used to treat more severe illnesses due to the potential risks involved in the surgical implantation of the device. Therefore, the non-invasive modulators, which could be used to enhance cognitive functions or normalize affective functions in patients suffering from memory-disorders, depression or occupational burnout, are of great interest worldwide and in Kaisa’s lab.
Kaisa’s multi-disciplinary background has enabled merging neuroscience and neurophysiology into clinical neurology know-how, and Kaisa firmly believes combining clinical work and research to be essential to produce valuable research results as well as deeper insight into clinical work. The researcher network facilitated by Neurocenter Finland hence offers an significant opportunity for multi-disciplinary collaboration, and bridges the gap between the research conducted at the university and at the hospital-setting.
For more information, please visit:
Researcher profile: Kaisa Hartikainen
Research group: Behavioural Neurology Research Unit
Article in Brain Sciences:
Occupational Burnout Is Linked with Inefficient Executive Functioning, Elevated Average Heart Rate, and Decreased Physical Activity in Daily Life
Article in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology:
Vagus nerve stimulation improves working memory performance
National Brain Health Programme
Sustainable Brain Health-project
Tampere Brain & Mind is part of the national Neurocenter Finland-researcher network. For more information, please visit https://neurocenterfinland.fi/en/.