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February 7, 2014

Katsuhiko Mikoshiba discusses receiving French Legion of Honour

On December 16, 2013, Brain Science Institute Senior Team Leader Dr. Katsuhiko Mikoshiba was awarded the rank of "Chevalier dans l'Ordre national de la Légion d'Honneur" (Knight in the National Order of the Legion of Honour) for his achievements in the field of neuroscience and contributions to international cultural and scientific exchanges between France and Japan as well as the rest of the world. He was commended not simply for his impressive research achievements, but also for helping to nurture young researchers. We asked him about his feelings upon receiving the award and about his ideas on training young scientists.

How did you learn about the award?

MIKOSHIBA: I received a phone call at my laboratory from an officer of the French Embassy in Japan, on the evening before I was scheduled to leave for a business trip overseas. He said, "The President of France has decided to confer upon you the Legion of Honour."

My immediate reaction was to answer, "Thank you very much. I am honored," but in reality I didn't know very much about the award! Everybody started looking up information about it on the Internet. And when I arrived in Sweden people acted genuinely impressed when I told them, and for the first time I realized it was really something special.

What attracted you to neuroscience?

MIKOSHIBA: In my second year of medical school, I decided that I wanted to study the brain, and in particular the development and division of the brain.

Why the brain? Unlike other organs, it allows us to communicate with other individuals. The liver and other organs are involved in the maintenance of the body, to allow us to maintain homeostasis. But the brain and nervous system, in addition to their role in homeostasis, communicate with our sensory organs that let us listen, speak, and see, so that we can communicate with individuals outside of ourselves. And that is despite the fact that the brain is just one of our organs. No matter how hard it tries, there is no way the liver can communicate with other individuals!

Because the brain is the only organ that can communicate, it is because we have brains that we can create human society. Culture and ideas are products of the brain. Therefore, the study of the brain involves studying the very existence of human beings. By achieving advances in neuroscience, we can become healthier as human beings, we can prevent tragic brain diseases, and we can make it possible to cure those that have already struck. We can pull civilization in a positive direction, and help build a more peaceful society. It's easy to imagine how tragic it is if an individual's brain makes and error and he ends up pushing the button to unleash atomic weapons. From that perspective, the brain is an extremely important organ that can be the key that decides whether humanity survives or not.

What is “discovery” for you?

MIKOSHIBA: "Discovery" means the uncovering of new principles that regulate life phenomena that are not yet understood. Discovery involves tossing away accepted concepts and adopting unique ideas based on free thinking rather than prediction. To do so, there are two important elements.

The first is to personally acquire the ability to think in an open and flexible way. For this, it is important to have many experiences from a young age, and to come to an understanding of one's likes and dislikes, and one's strengths and weaknesses. By doing so, you can understand that "this is something I can be confident about." It is our strengths and weaknesses that make us individual. For that reason, we need many people who are free and diverse.

You are critical of target-focused research. Could you tell us why?

MIKOSHIBA: In recent years, target-focused research has become increasingly common. A good example is drug discovery focusing on treating a specific disease. In this process, the focus is often on the people doing drug screening, and it is difficult to make discoveries. Research that begins with setting a target is really a confirmation of a prediction. It is a different concept than discovery, which means finding something that was not predicted.

For example, the discovery of penicillin was a coincidental discovery, rather than something that was based on a target. In that sense it was truly a discovery. I don't think it would have been discovered through target-focused research. Discoveries based on free ideas and target-focused research may be completely different, but they are both important. However, if all research becomes target-focused, then a nation's science will stagnate.

In research, if you have a 100 stones, and one of them turns out to be a gemstone, then you have achieved success. In our case, whenever we do something, we try to think of ten different ways to do it. It is common for one of them to lead to a discovery, and it is usually a method that we came up with out of curiosity.

What is the significance of basic research?

MIKOSHIBA: We know almost nothing about the fundamental principles of life. And in brain science, the more we learn, the more unknown things we discover. We have to try out a variety of methods to learn about the fundamental things that have not been elucidated yet. The mission of researchers in basic scientists is to explore using a variety of methods. By doing so, they come to an understanding that "this phenomenon is taking place because of the following mechanism." In other words, if the fundamental mechanism is uncovered, it is possible to gain an understanding of how a certain problem leaders to a specific disease.

I think then that this understanding can quickly develop into ways to fix those abnormalities and hence to treat disease. Conversely, if we focus on a single phenomenon from the beginning, in search for therapies for a given disease, we are looking at a single tree and failing to see the forest. It may turn out that the root of the problem was elsewhere. In recent years, basic and clinical have become very close to one another, and there have been many chances to collaborate, which I think is very positive.

I believe that we have to conduct experiments based on different hypotheses to develop new models of how the brain's actions are regulated. By doing so we will be able to come to an understanding of the mechanisms between the brain diseases that cause so much distress to human beings, and this will lead to the development of therapies to treat them.

At BSI, we have a mission to constantly develop new concepts, make great discoveries, and always be at the leading edge of brain science.

This is a shortened version of the full interview which appears on the RIKEN BSI website.