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Photo by Matt York/​The Associated Press

Houston — The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) today announced a $3.8 million grant to Stanford University to establish the Center for Reproducible Neuroscience (CRN), which will seek to increase transparency and improve reliability in neuroscience research. Funding will support CRN’s implementation of a free, online platform that will harness powerful supercomputers to provide scientists with advanced tools to better understand the root causes of serious mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder, addiction, and depression.

Brain disorders and diseases affect millions of people worldwide; yet, treatments for these conditions have not improved at the same pace as treatment methods in other fields. Not only is the brain more complex than other organs, neuroscientists are limited in how they are able to study the human brain. While cancer researchers are able to remove tumor cells to study them in lab settings, neuroscientists must usually rely on non-invasive techniques such as neuroimaging to determine how the brain functions.

The challenges of studying the brain are compounded by misaligned incentives within the research community, which have led some neuroscientists to employ flawed research practices in order to produce results that are more likely to be published in high-profile journals or attract grant funding. For example, many small studies in the last decade purportedly identified a specific gene related to schizophrenia, memory, and prefrontal cortex function. Those studies, and many others claiming that particular genes are related to certain psychological traits or brain systems, have since been shown to be unreliable. These two issues — the complexity of neuroscience research and flawed research practices — ultimately have undermined the quality of published studies and hindered the development of life-saving treatments for brain disorders.

CRN’s first-of-its-kind platform will enable neuroscientists to conduct more open, reproducible research, thereby helping to build a framework of solid evidence that will ultimately provide better guidance for the development of new treatments. Through the platform, scientists will be able to share their data as well as the methods used to produce the findings. Researchers will also be able to pre-register their studies, which will serve to discourage researchers with a stake in the outcome from changing the parameters of a study in order to achieve desired results. In exchange for agreeing to share their data openly, scientists will have free access to cutting-edge tools that will allow them to perform in-depth analysis of large neuroimaging datasets to diagnose and study brain disorders. Researchers will be able to use the resources to conduct multiple data analyses simultaneously, gauge the reliability of their results, and identify the analysis methods that maximize the reproducibility of the results. The platform will provide computing capabilities that many labs currently lack because of financial or technical limitations.

Neuroimaging is a relatively new technique. There are many methods for analyzing this kind of data, and results can vary significantly depending on what method is used. Analysis also is expensive, which means that reproducibility studies are infrequent,” explained Russ Poldrack, director of the center. Improving transparency and reproducibility in neuroimaging is a critical step in ensuring that we are able to trust the science that will guide our future research, decisions, and treatment recommendations.”

The CRN platform is being developed and is scheduled for launch in 2017. It will be integrated with the Open Science Framework (OSF), an existing open-source tool created by the Center for Open Science. OSF allows scientists to easily share and save their data and collaborate with others.

The tools developed by the Center for Reproducible Neuroscience will help to improve the reliability and validity of neuroscience research by expanding pre-registration, making data and final results widely available for other researchers to review, and making replication studies more feasible,” said Stuart Buck, LJAF vice president of research integrity. We believe that high-quality research can have tremendously beneficial consequences for individuals and society, and our hope is that open science principles will be adopted by researchers in every field.”