Japanese neurobiologist Atsushi Iriki won the 2004 Golden Brain Award from the Berkeley-based Minerva Foundation for seminal work showing how the brain connects vision and the sensation of touch. Iriki received his award at a private ceremony on October 25th, in San Diego, where he was attending the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.
Iriki is professor of cognitive neurobiology at the Tokyo Medical and Dental University and head of the Laboratory for Symbolic Cognitive Development at Japan’s RIKEN Brain Science Institute.
"Iriki was the first to demonstrate at the cellular level how the brain connects vision and tactile sensation when we use tools," said the late Elwin Marg, executive director of the Minerva Foundation. "In 1996, he showed that cells in the parietal cortex (the part of the brain in the back of the head near the top, just in front of the visual cortex) integrate both visual and tactile stimuli and are able to change the way they operate to become more responsive to visual stimuli related to the self image. The combination of different kinds of sensory information and change in the way the cells respond enables us to extend our body image to include the tool and use it successfully as an extension of our arm and hand.”
More recently, Iriki and his colleagues showed that brain cells respond in the same way to the image of the body in a video monitor during tool use, coding this image as an extension of the self.
“The neural mechanisms in the brain have made it possible for us to develop virtual reality technology,” Iriki said. “The brain treats the actual and the virtual body image alike. That is why we can project our body sensations into the video monitor.”
In both studies, Iriki and colleagues successfully trained macaque monkeys to do things the monkeys were not believed capable of doing. To learn how the brain connects visual and tactile information during tool use, the scientists trained monkeys to use a tool (a rake to gather food pellets). For the video image study, Iriki’s research team trained monkeys to recognize their body image when using a tool in a video monitor.
Iriki believes his work has implications for understanding the evolution and, perhaps, the possible future development of human intelligence and modern technology.