The Institute of Development, Ageing and Cancer recently celebrated its 75th anniversary but the man who is leading it today is a name that most people know of : Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. An alumni of Tohoku University and the person behind Nintendo’s popular ‘Brain Games’, he speaks exclusively to ‘The Sentinel’ reflecting on his life, work and his infamous rejection of a million euros salary.
When was the first time you realised that you were interested in neuroscience?
It goes back when I was a junior high school student and I didn’t want to die. I wanted to see the end of the humans with my own eyes. I imagined if I could integrate my brain with a computer then, I could definitely see the end of the world with my own eyes. This was the inspiration.
Your research has been highlighted in various schools and institutes across the world. Did you ever expect the incredible public response?
Actually, No. When I published my book ‘Brain Training’, neither the editor nor I trusted its success but within a year, it already sold 1 million copies! It was then that Nintendo approached us to make a video game version of the same. Nobody trusted it then.
You graduated from Tohoku University in 1985. It has been 31 years since then. What do you think are the most significant challenges in the university regarding your research in neuroscience?
In the initial phase, there was not so much budget allocation for neuroscientists from the government or the companies. When it was highlighted in the US in 1990s, Japan followed the US. Huge grants were received but ended in 2000s. These days, there are machines like MEG and Cyclotron (since 1980s) that can be used to measure the brain activity.
You have famously rejected a 15 million euros salary from Nintendo. Why did you do so?
There are two reasons for this. First, the amount of money is too big for my pocket (laughs) and secondly. I did all my work as a professor of Tohoku University. I did not spend any of my personal time or money. Hence, this huge amount of money is well deserved by the university and the government who provided all the support. Hence, I cannot accept such a huge amount.
Could you share a memory/experience from your life when you realised that your research is truly changing lives?
When I was 50 years old, I felt that my ability to think clearly was weakening and I feared Alzheimer’s 10-20 years down the line. It was at that time when I used my own program and within 2-3 months, I became absolutely normal and hence, this itself stood as a proof that it was changing lives. Also, I did several randomised studies and improvements in cognitive function amongst people suffering from dementia was significantly observed.
Your work has met with criticism from doctors and researchers according to a feature report by ‘The Independent’ in May 2013. How have you personally dealt with criticism?
I welcome criticisms as it is very useful but, there are only few reasonable criticisms. One of them was the randomised control study. The control group was not enough to be controlled and hence we created finer controlled groups. The other was about the outcome measures and we accept these criticism too. All other criticism seem to have emerged from jealousy and hence were not acceptable. Anyone can criticise but not everyone can create a new thing. It is only a select and knowledgeable group of people who can create something.
Any message for the readers of ‘The Sentinel’?
Tohoku University has everything and is an universe within itself. You can find a professor for any information. You are free to ask any professor since you are a student. Learn to accept and share knowledge.