How we advanced understanding of the evolution of the brain


    Humans have a unique ability to create and use tools. This is thought to have greatly enabled our evolution and civilisation, but how do our brains make this happen?

    Previous neuroscientific studies have shown that certain brain regions are activated when people are shown photographs of tools. It was thought that these same regions would also process the physical action of grasping, but no study before had explored whether this was the case. So, is looking at a tool and grasping it the same thing?

    The project

    Dr Stéphanie Rossit, Associate Professor at the School of Psychology at the University of East Anglia, set out to explore this grey area of understanding with her collaborator Dr Fraser Smith. Their experiment involved scanning participants’ brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they manipulated a 3D-printed spoon, knife and pizza-cutter – as well as non-tool control bars that had handles to grasp but served no particular function.

    The project, published as “Hand-Selective Visual Regions Represent How to Grasp 3D Tools: Brain Decoding during Real Actions”, built on Dr Rossit’s research programme into fMRI to study hand actions.

    There were some surprising outcomes. When scanning for the correct grasping of the tools, the brain’s visual region dedicated to hand images was shown to be more important than the corresponding one for tool images. This effect was observed as being exclusive for actions with tools; it wasn’t present for actions with the control bars.

    Dr Rossit’s insightful research indicates that our brains have evolved to actively and intuitively encode how to correctly grasp a tool, even when no use is required. It also found that we can discern between tools on the basis of whether they can be grasped correctly, including which side should be grasped for best use.

    Adopting an open approach

    “In the last five years, much has changed in how psychological and brain-imaging research is conducted and reported,” says Dr Rossit. “Open and reproducible practices are being incentivised to improve the robustness of findings.

    “One way of promoting reproducibility is to ensure transparent reporting of methodological details, data collection and analysis, as well as increasing data accessibility.”

    Patient having a brain scan

    With transparency as the watchword, Dr Rossit and her colleagues made all of their research materials available, including neuroimaging data, stimuli, experimental data analysis and machine learning code. The paper itself is also accessible to anyone online for free.

    Overcoming challenges

    Until very recently, most of the published research on the neural substrates of hand actions and tool use did not adopt open research practices beyond open access of papers, and Dr Rossit found that her decision to break new ground and adopt open research practices to make her study as accessible as possible was more expensive and time-consuming. Fortunately, the funding body – the BIAL Foundation – agreed to cover the extra costs, but this could pose a significant barrier in many other cases.

    There were also procedural challenges to learn from, like realising that the time required to process open data was increased after data collection. It became clear that to save time in future, any required conversion should take place in tandem with collection, so some improvement in data processing is needed.

    Outcomes and results

    But overcoming these difficulties was worthwhile, the researchers confirm.

    “Our paper has received a lot of attention and we think much of this is due to the adoption of open research practices,” says Dr Rossit. “To date it’s had almost 2000 downloads from the journal webpage and is in the top 5% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric. It was also featured as a research highlight in Nature.

    “Adopting open research practices has transformed our research pipelines and processes by making them more transparent and reproducible. By doing this our research has gained increased visibility, accessibility and credibility.”

    The study data has also been reused by a leading neuroscience research team at Stanford University.

    “Adopting open research practices has transformed our research pipelines and processes by making them more transparent and reproducible,” Dr Rossit says. “By doing this our research has gained increased visibility, accessibility and credibility.”

    Benefits of open research

    The major benefit of reproducibility is one that’s fundamental to the purpose of science itself: the advancement of knowledge. As all data and outcomes are available, researchers around the world can build on Dr Rossit’s findings.

    She advocates a continuation of this approach: “We are now implementing open research practices in all our new projects and hope to become more transparent and accessible both internally and externally.”

    The recent shift towards the wider adoption of open science practices signals a subtler shift in mindset. Ultimately, the focus on embedding open approaches leads to increased self-scrutiny, and continuous improvements in research practice then follow.

    “Adopting these practices has definitely improved our own research processes,” says Dr Rossit. “It gives us a clear opportunity to be able to understand, reflect and recognise the value of open research and the importance of making our work more transparent and reproducible.

    “We decided to make everything openly available, to make our analysis pipelines more transparent and open. Other teams can then fully engage with our code and use our stimuli, which could significantly advance the field and increase reproducibility of our findings.

    “It’s also important to recognise that research outputs go beyond journal articles or other peer-reviewed publications but also inclu

    community and universities recognise these as important research outputs as this will encourage others to adopt these research practises and, critically, make research more transparent and open in the future.”

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