20 years of African Neuroscience: Waking a sleeping giant
Preprint posted on 4 June 2020 https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.06.03.131391v1
Understanding the brain in health and disease, remains a key challenge. However, up to now, the majority of brain research is carried out in the Global North, while research from the Global South remains sparse. In their work, Maina et al (1) point out the need for devising new policies to boost Africa’s neuroscience research, and the fact that such policies must be based on accurate data reflecting the heterogeneity of research outputs across the 54 countries in the continent. The authors analysed Africa’s output on neuroscience over the past 21 years, focusing specifically on work performed in Africa and led by African-based researchers- as previous estimates suggested that as much as 80% of published health research with African authors was not led/performed in Africa (2). From this output, they analysed impact metrics, as well as details on funding, collaborations, techniques, and model systems used. They linked this data to indicators of mobility and economy, and compare it to metrics from selected countries in the Global North. This work’s aim is to set the basis to make actionable recommendations to support African research in the future.
The main findings of the study by Maina et al are summarized below in key points of the study.
Research landscape: Africa’s neuroscience output since 1997 has been dominated by Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia, who account for over 75% of neuroscience papers published in the continent. A further 6-9% is contributed to by Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania, while 6-12% is contributed to by Cameroon, Malawi, Algeria, Senegal, Uganda and Ghana. Beyond these countries, over half of the remaining African countries contribute fewer than 10 papers. However, neuroscience publications have exponentially increased across Africa over the last two decades, suggesting greatly a trend of future growth.
Research topics: Main research topics targeted by African labs include neurodegeneration and injury, techniques, excitability, synapses and glia, development and physiology and behavior, while less targeted topics included motivation and emotion, motor systems, cognition, and sensory systems. The authors found that the contribution over time and topics has been consistent.
Relation to economy and governance metrics: The authors related each country’s total number of neuroscience publications to metrics of economy, population, and governance (corruption index). They found a positive correlation between neuroscience output and wealth and resources, and a negative correlation to high corruption index.
Visibility: The authors assessed international visibility and communication outputs of African neuroscience by way of citation numbers and impact factor. Comparison with several non-African countries showed many papers were parallel in visibility, however, they noted high regional variation in these metrics. Moreover, at least a small fraction of papers were considered among neuroscience’s most influential work. They conclude that African neuroscience’s influence on the world’s production of knowledge is significant, and growing.
International collaborations: The authors discuss the barriers faced by African science in terms of engaging in collaborative work with colleagues abroad, whereby for example funding and visa- related processes hinder collaboration. Despite these barriers, African-led neuroscience publications resultant from collaborations tend to be cited more frequently, and in higher impact factor journals. The study evaluated collaborations between researchers in different African countries, as well as beyond the borders of the continent. The authors further found a geographic and cultural pattern, whereby inter-African collaborations seemed to be between West, East and Central African countries with South Africa, while North African labs seemed to seek collaborations within the region or with Europe, North America, and the Middle East. The authors further suggest that the identified networks are linked to underlying factors such as historic, linguistic, economic and cultural ties, and they point out that this relatively poor international connectedness should be considered in future efforts aiming to build a united African research landscape.
Funders of African neuroscience: The authors investigated funders of African neuroscience within the papers, and found that many papers did not declare funding. Of those papers that did declare funding, the majority were supported by international rather than domestic agencies, with some variations across regions, with Southern Africa being the exception. They identify that the availability of local rather than international funding is critical for building a viable research culture. However, 46% of Africa’s top neuroscience papers declared international funding, showing that external money invested into African research has indeed had an important impact. Most of this international funding came from the USA, the UK, France, Switzerland and Germany.
Advanced and basic techniques: Understanding the availability of state-of-the-art tools for research in Africa Is pivotal for developing a strategy to support future research. With this aim, the authors categorized the methods used in the various papers as ‘basic’ (including histology, chromatography and behavior) or ‘advanced’ (including fluorescence microscopy, molecular biology and cell culture work). Except for The Gambia (linked to MRC-funded research), ‘advanced’ methods were rarely used.
Model organisms: There was a near complete absence of small, low-cost and genetically tractable model systems such as fruit flies, zebrafish or C. elegans, as well as genetically modified model systems including cell culture and mice. This leads the authors to conclude that promotion of model systems should be considered as part of strategies aimed at modernizing Africa’s research landscape.
Medicinal plants: The authors evaluated medicinal plant studies given their relevance for drug discovery. They found that research in this field is highly diverse across the continent, with Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana being countries heavily involved in this aspect of research.
All data is available at https://github.com/BadenLab/AfricanNeuroscience.
What I like about this preprint
I think this is an exciting and very complete study aiming to generate a detailed view of the current landscape of neuroscience research in Africa, with the aim of identifying key areas that need to be addressed to support African research in the years to come. I think the work was integrative, considering multiple key aspects as varied as historical and cultural links between countries, availability of tools, and sources of funding among others. I learned a lot from this work, and I hope it will help indeed to address key issues and promote the presence of African research in the global scientific landscape.
- Maina MB, et al 20 years of African Neuroscience: waking a sleeping giant, bioRxiv, 2020.
- Gautier L, Sieleunou I, Kalolo A. Deconstructing the notion of “global health research partnerships” across Northern and African contexts. BMC medical ethics 19, 49-49, 2018
Posted on: 10 July 2020Read preprint
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