Influential neuroscientists

UK psychologists recognised by Semantic Scholar.

Two UK psychologists, both members of the British Psychological Society, have appeared in a list of the top 10 most influential neuroscientists. We spoke to Professors Trevor Robbins (University of Camb ridge) and Chris Frith (University College London).

The citation analysis, called Semantic Scholar, is an online tool built at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) in Seattle, Washington. Oren Etzioni, CEO of AI2, claims that Semantic Scholar sees much more than the typical academic search engine. ‘We are using machine learning, natural language processing, and [machine] vision to begin to delve into the semantics,’ he told Science Insider.

Professor Robbins (pictured above) ranked fourth; Professor Chris Frith was at number seven. Professors Karl Friston and Raymond Dolan, also University College London, have a more psychiatric background. Also in the top 10 were US-based professors of psychology Randy Buckner and Jonathan Cohen.

Professor Frith told us: ‘I would see this as recognition for me as a psychologist. The high citations all involve brain imaging, but they concern psychological topics, such as social cognition, empathy, and working memory.’

Frith (below) has said he ‘got into human functional brain imaging very early’, making it possible to ‘be first to do many of the obvious studies.’ ‘One of the attractions of brain imaging for me was the number of disciplines required: physicists, anatomists, statisticians among others,’ he told us. ‘Psychology had a very important role from the start.’ He believes brain imaging has had such a large impact that ‘this is sometimes difficult to see. I remember when clinical neuropsychologists were asked to use their paper-and-pencil tests to infer the location of a brain lesion. Meanwhile cognitive neuropsychologists were drawing box and arrow diagrams of the cognitive processes that were revealed by detailed behavioural studies of patients with lesions. We did not expect that within a few years we would be able to measure and localise activity in the brains of healthy volunteers. The paper-and-pencil tests became scanning paradigms and the boxes and arrows could be localised. Using model based imaging we are now beginning to relate cognitive processes to neural mechanisms.’

At the same time, Frith warns, this new technology has produced much nonsense. ‘The main difference from reaction time studies is that we get, not one, but hundreds of parallel subtractions. Much work has been devoted to the problem of how to discard all the false positives that inevitably result. But media-friendly pictures of brains with brightly coloured blobs, which may or may not be false positives, will always have a bigger impact than tables of reaction times.’

Professor Robbins joked ‘There must be a bug in their computer program!’ He then told us: ‘I was proud to be the highest ranked (i) Experimental Psychologist (ii) Behavioural Neuroscientist (the only one of the 10 working with animals) and iii) a non card-carrying Brain Imager (although I do use collaborate in using these methods in some projects).’ He added: ‘I was also proud that the UK scored four out of the top ten in view of our generally lower levels of infra-structural research funding (despite the great contribution of the Wellcome Trust in supporting my own research). Furthermore, all four of us include behaviour as a crucial variable in our research, showing the robust health of research on psychology in relation to the brain in the UK. Let’s hope it can continue.’ 

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Professors congratulations on your work and world recognition.I'm sure you would agree that mapping the neural mechanisms involved in the cognitive processing of language acquisition and development would also make an interesting project and one that I would like to colloborate on perhaps.