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Mind

This Season's Hottest Brain Regions

NeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticMay 6, 2010 12:17 AM

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Are you a budding neuroscientist who's not sure which part of the brain to specialize in? Or perhaps you're a purveyor of media neuro-nonsense who's wondering which area to namedrop as being the key to sex / intelligence / politics next?

Well, wonder no more, because Neuroskeptic can now exclusively reveal which parts of the brain are hot, and which are not, right now (thanks to the high-tech method of searching PubMed and counting the papers published referring to eight major brain regions, each year from 1985 to 2009.)

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The hippocampus stands out as an extremely hot region with both a huge number of papers and rapid growth over 25 years. So it's probably a good place to build a career... but on the other hand, the market may be saturated already, and it shows some signs of flatlining in the past few years. The cerebellum has long been popular, but growth has been extremely slow lately.

To better highlight the growth curves here's the same data but normalized to the year 2000 (so "2" means twice as many papers as in 2000, etc.)

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This shows major differences. The orbitofrontal cortex and cingulate cortex are both undergoing massive growth at the moment. The amygdala and parietal cortex are pretty hot too. By contrast, the cerebellum and the caudate are stuck in the scientific doldrums.

Why are the patterns so different for different parts of the brain? That's a big question which hopefully will get discussed in the Comments. I suspect that the recent rise of the cingulate cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex, however, has much to do with the rise of fMRI (i.e. within the last 10 years, mostly), which allows them to be easily studied in humans for the first time.

Both of these areas are quite difficult to study with older technologies like EEG, because of their location within the head. That said, the same problem applies to plenty of other regions, but the orbitofrontal and cingulate cortex are also difficult to study in lab rats and mice, because it's not clear which parts of the rodent brain map onto which parts of the human brain in these regions. By contrast, things like the cerebellum and caudate nucleus have exact rodent equivalents, perhaps making them more attractive to early researchers.

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