Revolution in brain science demands Higgs Boson-type collaboration

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, “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. 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. 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.University of Pennsylvania researcher Emily Falk, first author of the paper

Co-authors include Luke Hyde and Colter Mitchell of U-M, as well as other scientists from U-M and Wayne State University.

“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 wrote. “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,” the authors wrote. “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. 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.

Hyde, Mitchell and several other co-authors of the paper are affiliated with the new U-M BioSocial Methods Collaborative, directed by Richard Gonzalez, who is also a co-author.

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