Monday, 30 July 2012

Why don’t neuroscientists want to be read (except by neuroscientists)?

Neuroskeptic asked why Social Scientists don’t want to be read. Fair do’s – it was a pretty flabby abstract that could have been written by a UK science journalist who was trained in Eng Lit and media studies and hadn’t seen science since they were asked to practice some Piagetian conservation tasks in kindergarten (perhaps that might be more common than you think!).

After quoting the abstract Neuroskeptic exclaimed: “Phew. Now I think it's fair to say that this is a typical example of what might be called the "social sciences style" of writing.” Perhaps the issue here is how we differentiate between a badly written abstract and an inaccessible abstract. Psychology is a broad discipline. It claims to span the “softer” areas of the social sciences, through social and developmental cognition to experimental psychology, and then on to neuroscience and the various fields of biology and genetics.

But what about neuroscience abstracts? I’m about to begin a revision of my Psychopathology textbook and had made a decision to include more clinical neuroscience (in an accessible way, of course). But do neuroscientists write their abstracts in a way that gets across even the most basic contribution to knowledge of their studies? Only to some privileged audience.

I had a look at the most recent issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, and chose an abstract at random. Here it is:

ΔFosB, a Fosb gene product, is induced in nucleus accumbens (NAc) and caudate–putamen (CPu) by repeated exposure to drugs of abuse such as cocaine. This induction contributes to aberrant patterns of gene expression and behavioral abnormalities seen with repeated drug exposure. Here, we assessed whether a remote history of cocaine exposure in rats might alter inducibility of the Fosb gene elicited by subsequent drug exposure. We show that prior chronic cocaine administration, followed by extended withdrawal, increases inducibility of Fosb in NAc, as evidenced by greater acute induction of ΔFosB mRNA and faster accumulation of ΔFosB protein after repeated cocaine reexposure. No such primed Fosb induction was observed in CPu; in fact, subsequent acute induction of ΔFosB mRNA was suppressed in CPu. These abnormal patterns of Fosb expression are associated with chromatin modifications at the Fosb gene promoter. Prior chronic cocaine administration induces a long-lasting increase in RNA polymerase II (Pol II) binding at the Fosb promoter in NAc only, suggesting that Pol II “stalling” primes Fosb for induction in this region upon reexposure to cocaine. A cocaine challenge then triggers the release of Pol II from the gene promoter, allowing for more rapid Fosb transcription. A cocaine challenge also decreases repressive histone modifications at the Fosb promoter in NAc, but increases such repressive marks and decreases activating marks in CPu. These results provide new insight into the chromatin dynamics at the Fosb promoter and reveal a novel mechanism for primed Fosb induction in NAc upon reexposure to cocaine.

Luckily, Neuroskeptic was able to translate and rewrite the Social Science abstract, but I have no idea what this study might have made to the understanding of cocaine addiction in particular and substance abuse in general.

A study like this may quite reasonably have been written in the jargonized style understood by all those familiar with neuroscience as it is written in the Journal of Neuroscience – but it is not accessible beyond that audience. The same might be true of the Social Science abstract quoted by Neuroskeptic – it could be argued that much of the language was couched in social science jargon with terms like “thematic analysis” and “hegemonic masculinities” to name but two. I would have liked to have written an unjargonized summary of the neuroscience abstract I’ve quoted (just like Neuroskeptic did with the Social Science abstract). Neuroskeptic was able to do that but with the neuroscience abstract I’m completely stumped!

If there’s a moral here, it’s maybe about neuroscientists belittling social science because of its lack of preciseness, but conversely is neuroscience perpetuating its scientific elitism through the impenetrability of its jargon. How on earth am I able to decide if a neuroscience abstract is a bad abstract (and don’t say go and learn some neuroscience, because if you’re a neuroscientist I might say go and learn some social psychology)?!

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  1. I'll admit, it can't quite get as accessible as the social science abstract, but this seems like it would be accessible to an intellectual lay-audience:

    Production of the protein ΔFosB, in increased in certain parts of the brain (NAc and CPu) in chronic cocaine users. This alters the expression of other genes and ultimately leads behavioral abnormalities. We repeatedly exposed rats to cocaine, waited for a prolonged period, then measured the production of ΔFosb with another cocaine exposure. The final cocaine exposure demonstrated lead to a quicker production of ΔFosB mRNA and faster accumulation of ΔFosB protein in the NAc than would be expected in non-exposed rats. The opposite effect was observed in the CPu. These abnormal patterns of gene expression are associated with modifications of the proteins that bind DNA and regulate gene expression. In particular, Prior chronic cocaine administration induces a long-lasting increase in RNA polymerase II, but only in the NAc, which can make the cell more ready to produce ΔFosB upon re-exposure to cocaine. Other effects on of the later cocaine exposures are also noted, including decreases repressive histone modifications of the relevant gene in NAc, while in the CPu there are increases in such repressive marks and decreases activating marks. These results provide new insight into genetic-level effects of repeated cocaine exposure.

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