Basic Neuroscience

Publication Analysis 2007-2013
by Kathleen Gransalke, Labtimes 01/2016

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Image: Laboratory of Neuro Imaging and Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Consortium of the Human Connectome Project

England and Germany dominate the nations’ as well as the most-cited authors’ ranking. Neuroscience’s most popular method, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), is heavily contested.

Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am, René Descartes famously said. The brain, our body’s control centre, has not only fascinated philosophers for centuries. There’s hardly another body system that scientists are so desperate to understand as our central nervous system. Will we ever fully comprehend what makes us think, behave and feel? Is there a free will or are we just slaves to our myriads of neurons and glia cells?

In trying to find answers to those questions, a lot of money is currently being pumped into neuroscience research. In Europe, the first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the Human Brain Project, showered with millions of euros from the European Commission. Headed by Henry Markram from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, the project’s ambitious goal is to reconstruct and simulate a rodent’s brain, and later that of a human. Similar projects exist in the USA and Japan. Making a digital copy of our thinking muscle is, however, not the only thing that keeps the European neuroscientists’s brain running on overdrive. Below, we will see what else is on their minds.
Frontiers up front

Coming back to Henry Markram. Looking at neuroscience’s expert journals, which we used to compile the nations’ rankings on page 33, we noticed not less than eleven titles in the Frontiers series. Frontiers Media, which publishes these peer reviewed, open access journals, was founded by Markram and his wife, Kamila, in 2007. Recently, the publisher was at the centre of several controversies. First, Frontiers dismissed 31 of its editors, after they published a manifesto, complaining, amongst other things, about the lack of editorial independence. Then, librarian Jeffrey Beall, added Frontiers to his ever-growing list of so-called “predatory publishers”, based on questionable studies published in two of the Frontiers journals. Many scientists, however, disagreed with him. And also we kept the Frontiers journals in our expert journals list. It should be mentioned here that for our top authors’ ranking, we included all journals, also multi-disciplinary ones.

With almost 100,000 papers in only seven years, gathering two million citations up until now, European neuroscience excels in both quality and quantity. England and Germany are clearly the cream of the crop – the two nations are almost head-to-head regarding total citations. Interestingly, taken together, both countries produced half of the total European output in basic neuroscience research. Italy and France are far behind, with half as many citations. England also leads the citations-per-article ranking (27.8), followed by Switzerland (26.6), Ireland and Wales with 26.2 citations per article each. Unsurprisingly, Norway’s most-cited paper, published in a specialist journal, is a paper by 2014 Nobel Prize winners, Edvard and May-Britt Moser. “Place cells, grid cells, and the brain’s spatial representation system” collected 386 citations and helped secure the Nordic country a good 17th place among the European nations.

Globally, European neuroscience, once again, lags behind US-American brain works. Despite penning more articles, on average, articles by European neuroscientists gathered significantly less citations (20.9 vs 26.5).

What are the top papers in neuroscience? Three of the top five papers (1st, 3rd, 5th) in European neuroscience have to do with monitoring the brain’s activity (through, e.g., fMRI or EEG) to study its anatomical and functional systems. The second most-cited paper revolves around neurodegeneration, in particular Alzheimer-related peptides. While the paper in 4th spot deals with the brain’s “immune cells”, the microglia.

Neuroimaging is thus one of the most popular methods in neuroscience research at the moment. Widely used to extract the brain’s cognitive secrets, these studies seem to draw citations like moths to the flame. But is, in this case, seeing really believing? Or, put differently, should you really believe in the things you see on the screen? Fact is, neuroimaging is a complicated beast. Just remember the famous dead salmon experiment, in which a dead fish was put in an fMRI machine and shown pictures of “human individuals in social situations”. Data analysis revealed activity in the fish’s brain.

Scary issues in neuroimaging

The problem is still far from being solved. Famous blogger Neuroskeptic recently reported on a new paper by Swedish neuro­scientists, suggesting that “one of the most popular approaches to analyse fMRI data is flawed” ( “The new scary finding is that ‘parametric software’s familywise error (FWE) rates for cluster-wise inference far exceed their nominal 5% level’ – in other words, the chance of getting at least one false positive result is high, much higher than the 5% level which is expected and considered acceptable,” the blogger writes. “The authors conclude that much of the fMRI literature may be seriously compromised.”

Interestingly, half of our top 30 most-cited European neuroscientists are neuroimaging specialists, who are certainly aware of the “scary” issue. By the way, English neuroscientists, together with their German colleagues, clearly dominate the most-cited authors ranking, too – 26 of the top 30 work in either of the two countries. The top five places are, however, occupied by English neuroscientists.

Edward Bullmore (1st), Trevor Robbins (2nd), Karl Friston (3rd), Stephen Smith (4th) and Timothy Behrens (5th) all have something in common. They approach the brain with high-tech imaging devices. Bullmore wants to identify and analyse complex human brain networks, Robbins focuses on the frontal lobes and their connections to understand impulsivity and decision-making. Friston, on the other hand, is a theoretical neuroscientist; he developed methods for the interpretation of functional neuroimaging data. Smith set his scientific mind to the brain’s resting state network and Behrens, two years ago, won the Lennart Nilsson Award for advancing diffusion MRI. With the methods he developed, it’s possible to map the brain’s fibre structure in detail.

The brains of opera singers

One or the other fMRI or other neuroimaging machines can also be found in the laboratories of Raymond Dolan (7th), Nikos Logothetis (10th), Simon Eickhoff (12th), Matthew Rushworth (13th), Christian Beckmann (14th), Steven Williams (15th), Gereon Fink (19th), Heidi Johansen-Berg (23rd), Stanislas Dehaene (26th) and Niels Birbaumer (30th). The latter was involved with a study, scanning the brains of opera singers, asked to sing an Italian aria or merely imagine singing the piece. They found that both “activities” involve different brain parts, “with more prefrontal and limbic activation and a larger network of higher order associative functions during imagery” (Neuroimage;36(3):889-900).

Apart from cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging, what else makes highly-cited European neuroscientists’ neurons fire? Understanding neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, on cellular and molecular level, for instance. This is (was) the main goal of Christian Haass (9th), Hans Kretzschmar (11th, who sadly passed away in January 2014), Manuela Neumann (21st), Isidre Ferrer (24th) and Klaus-Armin Nave (25th).

The rest of our highly-cited authors sit on further branches of the widely-ramified neuroscience tree, such as neurophysiology (John Rothwell, 8th, Alexei Verkhratsky, 27th), molecular psychiatry (Florian Holsboer, 6th; Klaus-Peter Lesch, 16th, Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, 17th), neuroimmunology (Hans Lassmann, 20th; Angela Vincent, 22nd; Wolfgang Brück, 28th) or neuroendocrinology (Jan Born, 29th).

Once again, our list of highly-cited European neuroscientists is mostly (27 out of 30) made up of male scientists. A recent study by scientists from Israel, Germany and Switzerland showed, however, that there’s no such thing as a male or female brain. Looking at brain scans from more than 1,400 persons, the scientists found “extensive overlap between the distributions of females and males for all gray matter, white matter, and connections assessed” (PNAS, 112(50): 15468-73). So, there’s absolutely no biological reason as to why there aren’t any more women on our list.

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Last Changed: 08.02.2016

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