‘What Could Be More Fascinating?’ Director of I-LABS MEG Facility


Samu Taulu and the MEG center

Learn how Samu Taulu went from an early interest in math and physics to becoming a world leader in MEG technology.

Samu Taulu and the MEG center

A brain-imaging technique, magnetoencephalography (MEG), is the powerhouse behind some of the most groundbreaking research at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

With the recent hiring of Samu Taulu as director of the I-LABS’ MEG facility, the Institute took another significant step in being an international leader in MEG.

“Bringing Samu to I-LABS as the Director of our MEG facility was a coup,” said Patricia Kuhl, co-director of I-LABS.

“The number of infant MEG studies has accelerated so much under Samu’s direction that we need two MEG Operators to run the machine, and the MEG schedule is booked on Saturdays and holidays – that’s the vision co-director Andy Meltzoff and I set for I-LABS and Samu is making it happen in spades,” Kuhl said.

Five years ago, in May 2010, the MEG Brain Imaging facility at I-LABS opened. It is the first in the world dedicated to using MEG brain-imaging technology with infants, revealing the dynamic brain mechanisms that underlie the extraordinary cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional development during our earliest years of life.

infant in MEG scanner

MEG is the best tool currently available to watch the brain working, delivering real-time measurements similar to EEG but with a more precise localization about where in the brain the activity is occurring. It detects the weak electromagnetic signals given off when nerve cells fire, revealing to the millisecond, which areas of the brain are at work.

The beauty of MEG is that the scanner is comfortable enough for young children to sit in while they’re awake. But an awake baby means a dynamically moving baby, which is where a mathematical challenge and Taulu’s expertise comes into play.

“Samu developed the technology that allows us to track infants heads in the scanner,” Kuhl said. “That makes the babies happy, because they can move, and it makes the scientists ecstatic because, like GPS tracking, we always know where the baby’s brain structures are, and therefore where the brain activity is occurring.”

Taulu, a physicist and applied mathematician, has developed software and other methods to deal with head movements while babies are in the MEG. He is among the world’s foremost experts in MEG data processing and analysis.

“Fifteen years ago people would say you cannot possibly use MEG with infants,” Taulu said. “It’s the most challenging type of MEG measurements to do – infants are moving all the time. But we can solve this through innovative software correction algorithms.”

Through collaboration between I-LABS and Taulu’s Finnish colleagues, MEG has been effectively adapted for infants. Below we take a look at how Taulu became an MEG expert and joined the I-LABS team.

An Early Interest in Mathematics

Taulu (“tah-lu”) is from Helsinki, Finland, where he was born and raised. At age 13 he realized that mathematics came naturally to him, and then he became fascinated by physics.

“Physical laws and structures obey mathematics,” he said, “and I’m drawn to the elegance of how the natural world is arranged in this way.”

He went on to study physics at the Aalto University, which was called the Helsinki University of Technology at the time and is sometimes referred to as the MIT or CalTech of Finland.

In 1997, when he was an undergraduate, Taulu got his start in MEG. Taulu had been selected to be one of 10 physics students hired to work in the university’s low temperature laboratory for the summer. Brain imaging with MEG – which requires temperatures close to absolute zero to operate – was one of the projects he could choose to pursue at the lab.

“It’s an entirely different physical world when temperatures approach absolute zero,” Taulu said. “Electrons and other particles are at a virtual standstill, revealing exciting phenomena of quantum physics that would otherwise be very hard to detect.”

At such low temperatures, he added, researchers are able to study phenomena such as superconductivity that may lead to novel sensor technologies in a wide range of practical applications. In 2000, the laboratory set the current world record in the lowest temperature (about 0.000000000001 degrees C above absolute zero) ever achieved.

By joining the low temperature lab, Taulu had his pick of which research group to join, including groups studying properties of superfluid helium, nanophysics, theory of low temperature physics, and brain imaging with MEG.

Taulu decided to join the brain research team.

“What could be more interesting than the brain and the mechanisms that determine how the brain functions and networks develop in infancy?,” Taulu said.

First Work with MEG

As “magneto” in the name magnetoencephalography implies, MEG measures the magnetic fields produced when nerve cells fire. Since active neurons create magnetic signals that are very subtle, they must be amplified in order for them to be detectable.

Squid sensors on human head model

MEG scanners, including the one at I-LABS, are embedded with 306 sensors that were especially created to detect and magnify magnetic fields. The type of sensors used in the MEG are called super-conducting quantum interference device sensors (SQUID), and must be kept within a few degrees of absolute zero to maintain their super conductivity. Liquid helium keeps the MEG sensors cold, at about -269 degrees C.

When Taulu joined the low temperature laboratory at Helsinki University of Technology, he had his initial experience with MEG.

“My first assignment was the development of a mathematic algorithm for fast head position indication during an MEG measurement,” he said. “That project went well – we still use that method at I-LABS.”

His work at the low temperature lab piqued the interest of Neuromag Ltd., a Finnish company that develops MEG instruments. He ended up going to work for them in 1998, at age 24.

While at Neuromag (now Elekta Oy), Taulu’s work included developing physics-based mathematical methods for MEG signal processing and for calibrating MEG devices. He worked with customers in basic research and clinical settings around the world to create methods that suited their needs.

He did all this while also completing his physics studies at Helsinki University of Technology, ultimately receiving a doctorate in 2008.

I-LABS Meets Taulu

About 15 years ago, I-LABS co-director Patricia Kuhl gave an invited lecture in Tokyo. It was during that trip when she first heard about MEG technology as a safe, non-invasive and silent way to measure brain activity. It wasn’t being used in babies at the time – I-LABS would later become a pioneer in those efforts – but Kuhl immediately thought that the device would be useful in her studies with young children.

She sought out Toshiaki Imada, a Japanese scientist and one of the best MEG experts in the world, and asked him about doing MEG in babies.

“He said ‘it will be very, very difficult,'” Kuhl recently recalled Imada telling her.

Imada moved to Seattle in 2001 to work with the UW researchers. Through Imada’s expertise and research collaborations around the world, I-LABS scientists began collecting MEG data long before the Institute acquired its own MEG scanner in 2010.

It was during this time that a relationship with Taulu began. At Elekta, Taulu was the go-to person for resolving technical and software issues related to infant MEG, and I-LABS regularly sought his help. Together, I-LABS researchers and Taulu developed methods for using MEG to study babies.

MEG data screen

Moving to Seattle

After consulting with I-LABS for several years from Helsinki, Taulu joined the Seattle researchers in September 2014.

“I wanted to get closer to research again and felt that the time was ripe for a new career challenge in a high-level academic institute,” Taulu said of his move to I-LABS.

“The I-LABS researchers are performing cutting-edge neuroscience, which requires refined MEG methods for reliable data analysis from the ever-moving infants. The methods that we develop here will be generally useful for the whole MEG community, which is very motivating,” he said.

And, he added, though he’s in a new place about 5,000 miles from the only city he’s called home, Seattle isn’t completely unfamiliar to him.

“Just like in Helsinki, the sun doesn’t necessarily shine every day in Seattle,” Taulu said. “The variable weather conditions and natural beauty of Seattle area remind me of my hometown.”

Taulu at UW

At I-LABS, Taulu leads the “MEG brain team.” The group aims to improve MEG technology and data analysis, and supports the Institute’s brain-imaging research that is revealing the neural mechanisms underlying the magic of a baby’s developing brain.

They believe that the MEG discoveries and technological advancements with infants will lead to further insights that can be used in other populations, including autism, patients with Parkinson’s disease, epileptic seizures and other disorders.

Taulu also has a faculty appointment in the UW physics department, and he intends to provide research opportunities to UW students.

“Appointing Samu Taulu in the UW physics department while he is working at I-LABS offers our students the opportunity to use their knowledge to advance brain science,” said Blayne Heckel, chair of the physics department. “It shows physics students the many ways they can collaborate with other scientists.”

Taulu, with characteristic Finnish reserve, isn’t outwardly effusive, but despite that, he exudes enthusiasm for physics and the future of brain imaging.

“In many ways MEG offers the best modality to investigate these intriguing questions about the brain, and we need an understanding of physics for MEG instrumentation, data processing, analysis and more,” he said.

“I don’t think we will ever run out of open questions and mysteries when it comes to the brain,” Taulu said. “What could be more fascinating?”