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A celebration of the living brain
Psychology's continuing love affair with the brain scanner has been quantified by a 20-year review of the 'brain imaging' field by the Wellcome Trust, a major funder of the area. Research output in brain imaging has grown faster in experimental psychology than in any other discipline, bar computer science and AI, the review shows.
The percentage increase in experimental psychology between 1989 - 93 and 2004 - 08 was 3119.05 per cent, faster than the increase in the neurosciences (772.84 per cent), clinical neurology (372.08 per cent) and psychiatry (187.87 per cent). Clinical psychology showed a 504 per cent increase over that time period, the seventh fastest rise in brain-imaging output.
The review Human Functional Brain Imaging 1990 - 2009 lists the 20 most highly cited researchers in the field of brain imaging, with Chartered Psychologist, Professor Emeritus Chris Frith at UCL and Aarhus University listed in fourth place. Other psychologists in the list are John Gabrieli at MIT, Mark D'Esposito at the University of California, Berkeley and Randy Buckner at Harvard. BPS Fellow Professor Trevor Robbins at Cambridge University is among three case studies highlighting achievements by Wellcome Trust-funded researchers.
Psychologists are also lead authors or collaborators on many of the major brain-imaging breakthroughs highlighted by the review, including Eleanor Maguire's (UCL) studies on taxi drivers and on the neural representation of space; research by Chris Frith into amygdala function; research by clinical psychologist Mathias Pessigilione (INSEAD) into reward-seeking behaviour and dopamine-dependent prediction error; Trevor Robbins' and Barbara Sahakian's (University of Cambridge) research into brain abnormalities associated with psychological disorders; Andy Calder's (University of Cambridge) work with children with conduct disorder; and Adrian Owen's (now at the University of Western Ontario) research into the detection of awareness in patients in a persistent vegetative state.
The tone of the review is noticeably celebratory with a focus on breakthroughs and achievements, and the role the Wellcome Trust has played in them. Brain imaging is credited with contributing considerably to our understanding of the 'living brain' over the last 20 years, and with 'providing new perspectives in the cognitive neurosciences'.
There's no discussion of some of the field's key controversies, such as the paper published in 2009 by Ed Vul and colleagues, in which they raised concerns about the alleged widespread use of inappropriate statistical practices by elements of the brain-imaging community (tinyurl.com/9n82z4).
The review highlights the strength of UK research in brain imaging, second only to the USA and Germany in terms of research output throughout the 20-year period. It also discusses challenges for the future and makes recommendations, including:
- a need to shift gears via more solution-focused, 'grand-challenge' thinking, akin to the Large Hadron Collider project in physics;
- it calls for broad cross-disciplinary training and leadership; a refinement of existing technologies to improve spatial and temporal resolution;
- an international frontiers meeting ('to identify the current step limiting factors and work out what the goals and targets for brain-imaging research could or should be');
- it says there's a need for more partnerships with pharmaceutical companies; and more involvement of clinicians and larger sample sizes, to aid the translation of findings into clinical benefit.
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