Axel Hutt: a physicist peeks inside the human brain

Date :
Changed on 25/03/2020

This year, eight ERC grant winners are leaders or members of Inria teams. In the "starting grants" category, Axel Hutt (Cortex, Nancy), Paola Goatin (Opale, Sophia Antipolis), Pierre Alliez (Geometrica, Sophia Antipolis), Kartikeyan Bhargavan (Moscova, Rocquencourt), Véronique Cortier (Cassis, Nancy) and Nikos Paragios (Galen, Saclay) have received funding to form research teams. In the "advanced grants" category, Jean Ponce (Willow, Rocquencourt) and André Seznec (Alf, Rennes) are among the lucky winners and have chosen Inria as their host research institution. At a time when candidates are already submitting proposals for 2011, the 2010 winners are reminded of the road they have covered so far. This week, we will look at the work of Axel Hutt.

In order to achieve a better understanding of what happens inside the brain during anaesthesia, an Inria physicist in Nancy has won an ERC grant. He is working with doctors and neurologists.

An engineer, doctoral student, post-doctoral researcher and a few Master's students... these are the people Alex Hutt hopes to hire with the ERC funding he has just received. " My research is theoretical so I don't need to invest in equipment, but I would like to form a team  ", he explains. Becoming a full-fledged project manager, thanks to an ERC grant, does not seem to faze him. He has already supervised many Master's students. " Motivating a team is part of my job " he says. He has also set up two companies where he develops software for examining cerebral signals. So it is only natural that he intends to create his team at Inria after winning a spot on the CORTEX project team, at Inria in Nancy in September 2007. " My wife and I really want to settle in France  " he says with a smile.

This physicist is interested in the brain, or more precisely what happens inside the brain when we lose consciousness.

While anaesthesia has been used for more than 100 years, we still do not know why patients lose consciousness, or what happens inside their neural network. I apply a mathematical approach, by modelling interactions between neurons. Then I compare the electromagnetic signals emitted by this "theoretical" brain with real electromagnetic signals recorded by doctors on unconscious patients.

It is a truly interdisciplinary project because he needs to be able to communicate with neurologists, doctors and psychologists. Axel Hutt is used to it: his thesis at Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, his previous work, also in Leipzig and then Berlin, followed by the Ottawa University in Canada, all concerned modelling neurons. " Physics alone is boring, he admits. As a physicist, you learn a lot about the human brain. But it is difficult to talk with people from different fields; it's a real challenge, all the more so because the goals are not always the same. I listen to a lot of doctors in order to understand their problems. Thus, when they tell me monitoring electromagnetic signals inside the brain does not always work, I create a better model for understanding these signals, in order to improve monitoring. "

Another problem that doctors have is that certain patients wake up during anaesthesia. This is dangerous for operations that require them to stay still and are traumatic. " This happened to my mother once, a few years ago during an eye operation  " the researcher tells us. Once again, we are trying to understand, through modelling, the reasons people wake up. But also the impact of medications on neurons. " If my work can help patients, it's really motivating ", he says enthusiastically. "However, it will take a long time for the model to produce potential applications . "