Matti Hämäläinen and the Music of MEG

Gary Boas

Every Christmas back home in Finland, the Martinos Center’s Matti Hämäläinen gathers with friends for an evening of performing chamber music. He plays both flute and piano on these occasions; in more recent years he has explored the repertoire for “piano four hands” with his former classmate Lauri Malmi, who is now who is now a professor of computer science at his alma mater, Aalto University (formerly Helsinki University of Technology). Whatever the instrument or configuration of musicians, he always appreciates the combination of talent, skill and inter-player cooperation that goes into a successful performance. Not only do you need to play well, you need to play well together. Only then can you make truly beautiful music.

Much like doing science at the Martinos Center, he says.

Hämäläinen is director of the Magnetoencephalography (MEG) Core at the MGH Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and a highly accomplished investigator. A pioneer in the application of MEG to the study of human brain function, he has played a crucial role in developing whole-head MEG instrumentation, analytical methods and tools, and experimental protocols, which together have paved the way for MEG to become an important basic research and clinical tool worldwide. Last month the Center celebrated his promotion to full professor at Harvard Medical School, an apt recognition of his many achievements in the field of MEG.

His work in the field dates back to the spring of 1981, when he was a student in the Department of Technical Physics of Helsinki University of Technology. A course on “The Structure and Functional Organization of the Human Brain,” taught by Olli Lounasmaa, head of the world-renowned Low Temperature Laboratory at the university, led him to sign his name to a list of interested summer students. Not long after, he was selected to join the MEG project in the lab.

Hämäläinen has always shown a keen interest in working to improve technology.

At the time, Risto Ilmoniemi, now the head of the Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering at Aalto University in Finland, had just finished his master’s thesis and built a prototype of a 7-channel MEG device. But he didn’t yet have the software to acquire and analyze data. “I was very interested in this part of the project,” Hämäläinen says, “and thus started working on the analytical methods while others concentrated on the hardware.” The researchers continued to develop the technology throughout the eighties, building more and more sophisticated instruments. Finally, in 1992, they completed the first whole-head MEG device, with more than 100 channels. The device was a major breakthrough in the field, opening the door to any number of new types of studies and sparking the imaginations of neuroscience researchers worldwide, with Academician Riitta Hari as their torchbearer.

In 2001, thanks in large part to these achievements, Hämäläinen was invited to come to Boston to help with the MGH Martinos Center’s burgeoning MEG effort. The original invitation was for six months. To everyone’s great pleasure, and the significant advancement of the field, his stay has turned out to be a bit longer than he expected.

Reflecting on his 17 years and counting in the Center, he pinpoints one of the essential ingredients in the success of its MEG program—really, of all of its efforts. “The Martinos Center has imaging hardware second to none,” he says. “In principle, these resources could be acquired by anyone with sufficient means. However, the people in the Center and their collaborative spirit really make a difference.”