Revolution in brain science demands Higgs Boson-type collaboration

October 25, 2013
Diane Swanbrow,
Diane Swanbrow, (734) 647-9067, or Joseph Diorio, (215) 746-1798,

An abstract x-ray of a human brain. (stock image)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, “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

“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.

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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Established in 1949, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research is the world’s largest academic social science survey and research organization, and a world leader in developing and applying social science methodology, and in educating researchers and students from around the world. ISR conducts some of the most widely cited studies in the nation, including the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the American National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, the world’s largest digital social science data archive. For more information, visit the ISR website at