Open minds, open access and the future of brain research

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This post was jointly written by Elizabeth Bal, Natalia Manrique and Anna Perman

An animated gif of MRI images of a human head. Available from wikipedia.en. Image by Dwayne Reed

Inside each of our heads is a vital organ that determines what we remember, shapes how we see the world, and controls our bodily movements with and without our conscious control. What greater understanding of this fascinating machine could achieve in terms of disease prevention, shaping public policy and helping all of us to be healthier and happier is unimaginable.

It’s not just researchers that are involved. Policymakers, teachers, clinicians – everyone really, has an interest in improving our understanding of the brain. As global research initiatives try to fill in the gaps about our understanding, we take a look at what open access is contributing to the effort.

The international ‘brain race’

In April 2013, the BRAIN initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), with an initially proposed budget of $100m, was launched by Barack Obama to ‘revolutionize our understanding of the human brain.’ The ambitious aim is to build a comprehensive picture of the cells and circuits of the brain to treat brain disorders and understand how the brain works, depicted in this infographic.

In an equally bold initiative funded by the EU, scientists from 135 institutions, mostly based in Europe, are participating in the Human Brain Project, a  €1bn ten-year project that aims to develop the technology needed to create a computer simulation of the brain.

In the UK, the government launched an initiative in 2012 which focused more on clinical applications than the broad, basic research objectives of Obama’s and the Human Brain Project. The Dementia Challenge has three main areas for action: driving improvements in health and care, creating dementia friendly communities and improving dementia research.

The government pledged £66m in funding for research into dementia by 2015 – a big increase, though some called this a ‘drop in the ocean’ given how low funding was before. The challenges to improve health and care, and to create dementia-friendly communities rely on the research showing what works being available to those making those decisions.

One of the major obstacles is the fragmented nature of current research and the data it produces. Although research output is growing rapidly, with about 100,000 articles published each year, neuroscientists tend to be so specialised that they have difficulty understanding each other and there is still an inherent lack of data sharing between labs. It is hoped that these initiatives will help foster collaboration and accelerate a technical and cultural shift in the way findings are published, shared and integrated. Several BioMed Central neuroscience journals are participating in Force11’s  project to aid the identification of research resources in journal articles.

What a bit of open access can do

While the importance in making this research open access is clear, there have been no explicit announcements regarding the commitment of these initiatives to open access and the international collaboration needed to achieve these seemingly overlapping aims.

Distributing scientific findings online and open access has immense consequences for the way research is perceived, and publicized. The quality of information must be guaranteed by sustaining and protecting a peer-review process, which is a crucial component in the publication process in open access journals at BioMed Central.

Jack andraka in 2013. Photo by Benjamin Quinto

Jack andraka in 2013. Photo by Benjamin Quinto

But if publications can be shared and discussed by any member of the community, without barriers to access, everyone has a voice. For instance, Jack Andraka, a 16 year old high school student from Maryland used freely available information and open access research to develop an idea for a fast and affordable test for early stage pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer. Of 200 researchers he contacted, one of them, Anirban Maitra, helped him to develop his project at his lab at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. His example can inspire students and educators to take advantage of the high quality content at the tip of their fingers.

Open access removes financial barriers to information, for scientists in developing and budget-constrained hospitals or research institutions, and for every member of society. As neurological diseases become more common, it can facilitate patient-doctor conversations by helping both stay updated regarding major therapeutic advances.

But open access is just the start  – publishers can do more to help make sure brain research reaches the people who have an interest in it. For instance, in our BioMed Central blogs and Biome we create summaries on highlighted research, to share with our community the latest scientific advances in a concise way.  In our guest blogs and author Q&As scientists use their own voice to explain the meaning and implications of their work.

The theme of brain week is to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research, and we think open access helps this conversation between the scientific community and the rest of society about research. We believe engaging students and the general public will continue to build not only the future of scientific communication, but also inspire future generations of researchers and encourage the advancement of science around the world.