When professor of psychological sciences Fumiko Hoeft was a child in Tokyo, she knew she wanted to help people. Growing up in one of the most populous cities in the world, she read stories of Gandhi and Mother Teresa, whose work helping the sick in developing countries inspired her to become a doctor.
“Most of us wanted to be a lawyer, teacher, police man, nurse, stewardess, doctor … or maybe own a bakery,” she laughs. “I decided to be a clinician.”
Hoeft didn’t waver from that ideal: She trained in medicine and clinical practice at Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo, and in research at Harvard, UCLA, Caltech, and Stanford, some of the most advanced medical programs in the world.
But along the way, she developed what she calls an unexpected fascination with the brain. Seemingly minor insults to the brain in neural circuits or neurochemistry can have major impact on how we perceive the world and behave, she explains.
At [the Brain Imaging Research Center], we want to do first-rate science and advance theory, but also want to help children, parents, and patients through our scientific journeys. — Fumiko Hoeft
She also became adept at applying new technologies to study how the brain functions. Early on, she used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in her research on neurology and psychiatry. More recently, she has used advanced approaches such as machine learning and network analyses in her work on the neural basis of reading development and dyslexia.
Now, Hoeft continues her 20-year career of cognitive neuroscience and technological expertise at UConn as the new director of the Brain Imaging Research Center (BIRC), housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
“The combinations of tools here is state-of-the-art,” she says. “This is a nerve center of cognitive neuroscience research, and I would love to see it continue to grow as one of the many excellent research hubs at UConn that bridges across disciplines, across UConn campuses, and globally.”
Mapping the Brain
Established in 2015 with a three-Tesla MRI scanner, the BIRC fosters an environment where technology is used to its fullest, says Hoeft.
The centerpiece of the BIRC, its fMRI, allows researchers to investigate brain activity by measuring blood flow, tracking fibers in the brain, and measuring various properties of neuroanatomy and neurochemistry. The Center also boasts high-density electroencephalography (EEG) equipment, which measures brain electrical signals, and a TMS system, which can temporarily disable particular parts of neural networks to understand their connectivity patterns and function.
Taken together with the Center’s eye-tracking technology, Hoeft says the combination of tools is extraordinary.
She also calls the environment at UConn “exceptionally intellectual and collaborative,” which is one of the things that attracted her to the institution. She herself has worked on federally funded research with Department of Psychological Sciences faculty Roeland Hancock, Nicole Landi, Ken Pugh, and former Center director Jay Rueckl, as well as Neag School of Education faculty member Devin Kearns.
Hoeft is excited to continue these collaborations, while developing new ones across the Storrs campus and UConn Health. Upcoming BIRC projects include collaborations with UConn Health’s Department of Radiology on providing clinical scans for the Storrs student community, expanding the well-regarded BIRC Speaker Series, and developing workshops in collaboration with other neuroimaging centers in New England.
Hoeft brings to UConn not only an impressive record of building collaborative research centers, but also her own portfolio of seven NIH and philanthropic foundation grants totaling about $17 million.
Her current work includes understanding what can make a child resilient to risk of dyslexia and compensate for reading difficulties; and various projects aimed at understanding the neural mechanisms of speech processing, language development, and reading development in adults and children.
She and BIRC associate director Roeland Hancock are also starting a study on children and parent trios to determine whether and how language, reading, cognition, and their neural networks are passed on from parents to children.
“The brain is very complicated,” Hoeft says. “One of the biggest misconceptions about our technology is that it’s more precise than it actually is. For example, people from all over the world contact us to ask if we can predict their child’s academic outcome using brain imaging and machine learning. We are not there yet, but if we combine our tools, we can ask very specific questions and advance our scientific knowledge.”
Training students to communicate with the public and press about their research is also high on Hoeft’s agenda. Students and junior faculty often worry that if they speak with media, their words will be misinterpreted, and so they avoid it, she says.
“I tell students, if they don’t want to be misinterpreted by the media and public, that means they need to do more of it rather than walk away from it,” Hoeft says.
Hoeft also hopes to establish new BIRC outreach and educational programs in the coming years. For example, together with Pugh and Landi, she has begun to set up neuroscience labs with technology such as EEG in local schools – not just to expand research efforts, but to empower students to learn how their brain works and “be stewards of neuroscience,” she says.
With Hancock, she is developing a gamified application, based on cognitive science principles, that can act as an early-warning system for students with risk for dyslexia, and can assess young children’s strengths and weaknesses in cognitive, language, and literacy abilities – in other words, their school readiness.
She also sees opportunities to bring humanities and the arts into science through multimedia art installations that use neuroimaging tools in order to make neuroscience more approachable to children and the general public.
A mother of two sons who, she says, are “very cognitively and socio-emotionally different,” she understands the concern of a parent who wants to understand their child’s affliction, to prevent future negative effects, and maximize each child’s learning potential.
“As a parent who has a child with reading problems, you want answers, and you want them to be based on science,” she says. “At BIRC, we want to do first-rate science and advance theory, but also want to help children, parents, and patients through our scientific journeys.”