Revolution in brain science demands Higgs Boson-type collaboration

October 24, 2013
Human brain (Image by Thinkstock)

Image by Thinkstock

ANN ARBOR—Social and life scientists from the University of Michigan and other universities are calling for a new model of cross-disciplinary collaboration to advance understanding of the human brain.  Their paper, titled “Neuroscience meets population science: What is a representative brain?” appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The group’s collaboration began as part of an initiative by the U-M Office of Research with support from the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR).  The initiative urged scientists to step outside their disciplines and think of ways to expand current research paradigms through interdisciplinary collaboration.

“This collaboration is meant to be a model of how to incorporate often disparate groups of researchers that study genes, brain, and environmental factors that matter,” explains University of Pennsylvania researcher Emily Falk, first author of the paper. “Critical to this collaboration is the acknowledgement that future research needs to focus on the examination of the broader population to provide better science on the lives of all individuals in our society.

“What we have tried to do is take advantage of the disciplines and synergy of the group to answer questions that couldn’t be answered without input from multiple disciplines,” the authors write. “We think that this could produce new insights on the scale of other movements toward larger team-based science, such as recent work in high energy physics on the Higgs Boson and the human genome project.”

The paper outlines steps to encourage this type of scientific collaboration. These include systematically “piggybacking” research methodologies within the represented disciplines of communications, neuroscience, psychology, population studies, statistics, biomedical engineering, and pediatrics; using more strategic sampling methodologies when recruiting for brain imaging tests; and remaining focused on changing the culture of neuroscience and population research to make collegiality second nature.

“Our work encourages new research directions – bringing together groups of scientists from across social and life sciences to deal with the complexities of the environment and the person as well as represent the population,” according to the authors.  “We push each other to look beyond our disciplinary boundaries to better understand a given problem from multiple directions. And we’re looking to push our science past the usual focus on one topic area.

“Nearly all social science disciplines, including social demography, sociology, political science, economics, communication science, and psychology make assumptions about processes that involve the brain, but have incorporated neural measures to differing, and often limited degrees; many still treat the brain as a black box,” the authors write.  “We are in the midst of a revolution in brain and population sciences.  The only way to stay at the front of this explosion will be to work together.”

Co-authors of the paper include University of Michigan researchers Luke Hyde, Colter Mitchell, Jessica Faul, Richard Gonzalez, Mary Hetizeg, Daniel Keating, Kenneth Langa, Meghan Martz, Frederick Morrison, Douglass Noll, Megan Patrick, Fabian Pfeffer, Patricia Reuter-Lorenz, Pamela Davis-Kean, Christopher Monk, and John Schulenberg; Julie Maslowsky of the University of Wisconsin; and Moriah Thomason of Wayne State University.

The research is a product of the Social Environment and Neuro-Development (SEND) group, an inter-disciplinary group working on “population neuroscience” and trying to understand how the social environment throughout the life-course affects genetics, brain development, neuro-degeneration, behavior, and achievement. SEND includes colleagues from developmental and clinical psychology, survey research, communications, sociology, economics, and medicine. It is housed at the ISR Survey Research Center and led by Davis-Kean, Schulenburg, and Monk.


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Joseph Diorio,, 215-746-1798