Brain trends exposed in ‘state of the neuron’ study

A fascinating study on the social trends in neuroscience research has found that New York is happening but Boston is hot, dementia researchers are the most influential, high-level processes are hip and that neuroscientists need to practice professional ‘birth control’ to avoid mass starvation.

The results come from a paper just published in PLoS One that used the abstracts from five years’ worth of Society for Neuroscience annual conference presentations to map out emerging trends in brain research.

The study did a series of ‘bibliometric‘ analyses. That is, it used software that looked for links between people, topics, geographical location and other points of interest over time by analysing the text of presentation summaries.

The SfN conferences always happen in the States, so there’s certainly a bias, but they’re generally considered the most important international meeting of the year, so the paper is full of gems about neuroscience now and in the future. I’ve pulled out a few below.

The global “hubs” for neuroscience research seem to be concentrated in the northeast region of the United States (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore/DC vicinity), Southern California, Tokyo, Montreal, and London.

New York City consistently ranks as the top producer of neuroscience research, but when population size is included, Boston and Baltimore come out particularly well, as they rank high in both the raw number of authors and per population participation in SfN meetings.

There has been a shift in general scientific interest from ‘low-level’ research on cellular processes such as ion channels, synapses, and cell membranes, towards more ‘high-level’ research on things like vision, movement, and neuroimaging.

A useful graph shows words which have decreased in frequency in the research summaries over the years on the left, and words increasing in frequency on the right.

In a social network analysis, the neuroscientists with the largest betweenness centrality, a measure of influence over the network, were not necessarily those with their name on the largest number of research presentations.

Interestingly, most of these scientists conduct research in the field of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and the authors of the study speculate that this may be because the area is well funded and that it involves a diverse range of research techniques. Therefore, the researchers are likely to be connected with many others in the field.

A cluster analysis of themes looked at which research areas formed coherent groups. It’s interesting to compare SfN’s traditional classification of topics with the results of the analysis which found spontaneous groupings.

While there is some overlap, areas like ‘pain and trauma’, the ‘behaviour of song birds’ and ‘sleep’ seem to have formed strong groupings by themselves.

In terms of the population shift in neuroscience, about 60% of researchers seem to be ‘transitory’, probably students or outside collaborators who don’t remain in the field for long.

However, the growth of the neuroscience community has been massive, while the total funding has remained steady.

The authors suggest that like in any population boom, research institutions should use the equivalent of ‘birth control’ to keep numbers down, otherwise they’ll be more people than jobs, and lots of people will be work-starved.

Starvation, of course, regulates a population, although is a rather painful process for those who expire due to lack of resources.

Link to full text of PLoS One paper on neuroscience trends.

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