The Fall of Babble-on

Over the past few years, there has been an increasing call for “interdisciplinary,” “multidisciplinary,” and “transdisciplinary” research. While each term can be defined distinctly, all refer to the notion that we need scientists who can conceptualize and perform research that incorporates the perspectives and possibly the methodologies of other disciplines. For example, incorporating the perspectives of other disciplines is essential if discoveries from the basic sciences, such as neuroscience or behavioral science, are to be translated into clinical application. And conversely, mental health treatments that are now available clinically, but are not adequately understood behaviorally or biologically, must move back to the basic research arena if they are to be effectively characterized and superior alternatives created.

Why is this “translation” important in mental health? Fundamentally, it is the realization that mental illnesses and behavioral disorders have complex etiologies and phenomenologies and therefore will require coordinated efforts among many disciplines to develop effective and sustainable interventions. Recent advances, such as the work by Caspi et al. (2003), demonstrate the rich potential for interdisciplinary research; through the combination of biological, developmental, clinical, and epidemiological approaches they documented how specific gene-environment interactions increase the vulnerability for depression during childhood through young adulthood. Building on findings such as this to develop more finely-tuned intervention strategies that can be used and sustained by the practice community can only be achieved by incorporating the multiple perspectives of the behavioral, social, neurobiological, and clinical sciences.

While the need for interdisciplinary science is real, so too are the barriers that impede such efforts. In Bridging Disciplines in the Brain, Behavioral, and Clinical Sciences (2000), a report from the Institute of Medicine, a number of barriers were identified. Key among the list was communication. Each discipline and sub-discipline develops concepts, terms, and definitions distinctive to their perspective (i.e., jargon). Frequently, the terminology becomes a form of shorthand by which to facilitate communication within the discipline. However, use of jargon also challenges those from outside the discipline to accurately interpret its meaning. This can become particularly challenging when a term is used by more than one discipline, but has distinctly different meanings in each discipline; or when distinct terms are used to describe very similar conditions. For example, the term “environment” – in molecular neuroscience can refer to hormonal and neurotransmitter activity that surrounds a given neuronal pathway – whereas in basic behavioral science it could refer to aspects of the physical or social context in which behavior occurs. While clearly different, one can imagine the confusion that could arise when a molecular neuroscientist listens to a behavioral scientist discussing the role of the environment on shaping early child attention.

How, then, to overcome this potential tower of “babble”? The answer, not surprisingly, lies in the problem – communication. To appreciate the perspective and understand the terminology of another discipline, one needs to spend time and effort to engage in discussion and read research from different areas. Opportunities for interdisciplinary exchange occur throughout the research career, with the pre- and postdoctoral experiences often suggested as particularly ripe opportunities. However, excellent training in interdisciplinary research can only be accomplished when mentors actively participate in interdisciplinary thinking.

Engaging in interdisciplinary forums, regardless of career status, in order to develop a shared method of communicating science is a necessary first step in the pursuit of interdisciplinary research. While many of the grant mechanisms at NIMH (e.g., research, training, career development, centers) can be used to support interdisciplinary research in mental health, envisioning and communicating how a research objective will be accomplished by integrating more than one discipline will require that investigators and reviewers are themselves actively communicating across disciplines to identify cutting-edge questions and methodologies that will advance our progress in understanding and intervening in complex mental disorders.

Caspi, A., et al. (2003). Influence of life stress on depression: Moderation by polymorphism in the 5-HTT gene. Science, 301, 386-389.

Pellmar, T.C. and Eisenberg, L. (Eds.) (2000). Bridging disciplines in the brain, behavioral, and clinical sciences. National Academy Press, Washington, DC.

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