The field of scientific research has been met with skepticism with the emergence of two new developments that challenge commonly accepted theories: a general review suggesting that low levels of serotonin are not necessarily linked to depression and exposure of research misconduct in an influential study on Alzheimer’s disease.
A article published by Science draws attention to an incident of fraudulent research, in which the scientist manipulated images to achieve a certain result: a result that would become the most explored cause of Alzheimer’s disease. The 2006 study suggested that beta-amyloid – a protein that clumps together in the brain – causes cognitive impairment, making the theory a basis for further research. The study has been cited more than 2,200 times to date.
The umbrella magazine published in Molecular psychiatry in 2022 reviews the research done on the link between serotonin levels and depression, to suggest that the common belief that depression is caused by lower serotonin levels may be wrong. This discovery has an impact, because more than 37 million people in the United States are prescribed antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common, according to Winston-Salem Journal. SSRIs are said to work by increase serotonin levels in the brain, but can also induce a range of negative side effects, according to an article in Science Daily presenting the ideas of the researchers who wrote the first articleuh.
These two recent cases illustrate the tendency of scientific research to rely on previous discoveries to advance the field of study.
Dr. Valerie Hardcastle, executive director of the Institute for Health Innovation and vice president for health innovation at NKU, explained that when research yields a promising result that appears to come close to determining the root of a problem or the search for a solution, scientists tend to house in this angle. These findings shape the research agenda offered by various federal institutions, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, whose funding is highly competitive and necessary to make significant advances in research areas, according to Dr. Hardcastle.
“When you apply to the federal government for funding, about 10% of applications get funded,” Hardcastle said. “Usually the people who win this award are people who build on what came before them, but they’re trying to take it in a whole new direction. Taking everything we know, if we change it, we might learn something really new.
The model for developing and funding scientific research is designed to arrive at new answers to improve the lives of humans, but the system can, in some cases, encourage prosecutions based on erroneous grounds..
To avoid such incidents where past research leads researchers to ask the wrong questions and steer them down unproductive paths, policies and procedures are in place to help ensure that sound and ethical research is conducted.
NKU psychology professor and director of the interdisciplinary minor in neuroscience, Dr. Mark Bardgett, explained that researchers who receive federal grants and staff hired to help with research must complete an extensive training program that teaches the research conduct and ethics.
According to Bardgett, another key criterion in the funding application review process that ensures that new research is based on an accurate foundation is to assess the credibility and rigor of that previous research. Research that builds on studies that have been replicated by other scientists and that contain representative and comprehensive dataa — a standard measured by a process called power analysis — is more likely to win funding, Bardgett explained.
However, scholarly scientific journals generally don’t publish articles that find so-called negative results — results that contradict a commonly held theory — according to Bardgett.
Bardgett and Dr. Ty Brumback, assistant professor and clinical psychologist, mentioned a burgeoning measure in psychological research publications that aims to normalize the publication of negative results called study pre-registration, a process by which scientists define comprehensively their planned research process before executing it. In return, approved studies will be given the word of the journal to publish the results, regardless of the outcome, Bardgett and Brumback explained.
Dr. Jordan Wagge, an NKU alumnus and professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Avila, received a $267,741 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the Collaborative replication and education projecta project she leads that aims to advance the field of psychology by reproducing published studies and providing valuable research experience to undergraduate students.
“It’s really hard to prove a negative. It’s easy to prove a positive,” Bardgett said. “We need to be able to post things that say it didn’t work.”
The financially dependent and discovery-driven nature of the field of scientific research perpetuates what Brumback called the file drawer phenomenon: the tendency for studies that do not lead to new discoveries to go unshared.
These initiatives that aim to ensure sound scientific research indicate a push towards open science, which is “the idea that we should share everything. So share our data. Share our methods, share our analytics, and bring it all to light,” according to Brumback.
The open science research model allows scientists to access other researchers’ datasets and develop well-informed research investigations; it also helps scientists and healthcare workers to confer the current status of progress in various lines of research specifically to the public, encouraging individuals to make well-informed health decisions, according to Brumback.
With caution in assessing the legitimacy of past research and programs that encourage the replication of studies on the rise in scientific research, misconduct can still slip through the cracks, as in the discovery of the manufacture of images that tainted the original Alzheimer’s disease study positing the beta-amyloid theory.
Scientific research is a self-regulating field, and although experts in the field assess and approving federal grants and peer-review articles before publication, how individuals act within a lab is relatively secretive, according to Brumback.
“What I hope the public realizes is that it’s one person doing this,” Bardgett said. “In science, you’re going to have good people doing it; you’re going to have people who are maybe a little dodgy to do it.
But according to Hardcastle, the discussion in the field of biomedical research has been open to the idea of approaching research on Alzheimer’s disease with different approaches even before this scandal broke; these studies slip underpublic radar as they are barely published. That’s because if nothing illuminating is discovered, it’s usually not published.
“My take on it is that it’s actually out there, but it just hasn’t caught on to the average person,” Hardcastle said.
Although the two studies mentioned here raise questions about commonly held theories, they are very complex issues that cannot be narrowly understood.
“The serotonin study and the Alzheimer’s study paint the problem with a broad brushstroke,” Bardgett said. “It’s not black and white. It would be really important for science to look out and say, “What are the other causes of depression or Alzheimer’s disease?” »
Hardcastle compared these trends to the ambiguities in science regarding vaccinations, masking and variant strains that have been developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Science is gradually peeling back the layers of important questions, with promising information released to the public. The evolution of developments can irritate the public and cause skepticism, but trial, error and fluidity are the nature of science.
“When you look at the way science is progressing, I think what you’re seeing is a bit of chewing on these issues,” Hardcastle said.
When revelations like these surface, it can change the way issues are explored, throwing research development and fund allocation into a state of disarray.
“We thought that was it, and all of a sudden we realize maybe it’s not,” Hardcastle said. “And so when that happens, you get this whole flood of new perspectives and new ways of doing things. In fact, what’s happening is people are throwing money at everything to see who’s going to come up with the next thing that we can really focus our attention on and dig into.