Elia Formisano Elia Formisano Sacha Ruland

Keep an ear out for Elia Formisano

In Mind
Written by  Jolien Linssen Wednesday, 23 October 2013 08:37
By the time this interview with Italian-born Elia Formisano, extraordinary professor of Neural Signal Analysis, takes place, it has been raining for days. We start with the obvious: would he not rather live and work in his home country? But Formisano feels at home in Maastricht, and the reason why becomes clear soon enough. "This is what keeps us here", he laughs, pointing at the 9.4 Tesla scanner – an enormous machine that would not be out of place in a science-fiction movie. In real life, however, this machine helps scientific dreams come true.

When Formisano started working at Maastricht University in 2000 "there wasn’t much here", he says bluntly. Thirteen years later, the Maastricht Health Campus welcomes Brains Unlimited, an imaging platform for scientists and entrepreneurs that houses the world's most powerful magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine – that magical 9.4 Tesla scanner. "I came here together with professor of Cognitive Neuroscience Rainer Goebel, whom I’d met at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt", Formisano says. "We’ve worked very hard to build this up from scratch."

Reason enough to be proud – and he is – but there is more. Last February, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) awarded Formisano a €1.5 million Vici grant. The money enables him to continue and extend his research on auditory perception. "The aim of my research is to understand how the human brain analyses sounds. As we have this conversation, you hear my voice. What I want to know is how the brain makes sense of this. In the Vici project, we concentrate on the brain's ability to be selective. How is it possible to be at, say, a cocktail party, to hear many sounds – music in the background, many people talking – and to still be able to pick out the words of one individual?"

Hearing aids

The practical application of this knowledge is clear: if we can understand how our brain identifies and processes natural – hence, combined – sounds, we should be able to build computer programs that imitate the brain. "These programs then could be used in applications like hearing aids", Formisano explains. "Our current hearing aids are not very clever because they amplify all sounds, often leading the people who wear them to shun social events. So we want a device that separates the important from the non-important sounds.” Such a device would not only benefit those who suffer from hearing loss; it could also open the door to “a sort of Google glasses for the ear”.

Comprehending the hearing brain is a highly ambitious enterprise, but Formisano and his team have the newest technology at their disposal. "Having the big 7 and 9.4 Tesla scanners helps a lot. We get great images of the brain, which help us to understand basic neuroscientific processes. Based on the empirical data, we build mathematical models. In other words, we’re not just observing biological processes, but we also have the quantitative methods to accurately characterise them. Moreover, in a virtual laboratory we simulate the effect of a smart hearing aid. This is what makes our research extremely multidisciplinary and thereby innovative.” Not coincidentally, an innovative character is a basic requirement for a Vici project.

Brains Unlimited

With the launch of Brains Unlimited, it is no wonder the future looks bright for Formisano. "I know it’s a bold statement to make," he admits, "but when it comes to neuroimaging, we’re among the very top groups in the world. Now that we have access to the newest, improved technology, we’re able to compete with huge research centres like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oxford and Cambridge." One doesn’t need a crystal ball to predict that Brains Unlimited will attract new students to Maastricht. "I sense that a lot of people like to be here; you don’t get the opportunity to work with a 9.4 Tesla scanner just anywhere. We’ve already welcomed a number of fantastic MR physicists, whose expertise is in demand all over the world."

During a mini-sabbatical in Cambridge last May, Formisano was pleased to note that many of the PhD students were graduates of the research master’s at 'his' Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience. "As a scientist, reward is important. It can come in the shape of a good publication or a grant. But it’s also very nice to see young people who started their careers with you developing and becoming really good – even better than you are. I find that very rewarding. But,” he adds, "of course I’m still relatively young myself."

Elia Formisano
Elia Formisano (1970) studied electronic engineering at the University of Naples, Italy. He was a visiting research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany, and received his PhD through the national Italian programme in bioengineering. He moved to Maastricht University in 2000, where he is currently extraordinary professor of Neural Signal Analysis and scientific director of the Maastricht Brain Imaging Centre. 


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