Remember My Name: the Rise of the Acronym

I’ve been thinking a lot about acronyms. It seems to me, that an acronym is a super sexy thing to have.

In the past few months, my little corner of Neuroscience has enjoyed the appearance of 4 new acronyms. Now, I’m not talking about the consonant-and-vowel salad used as shorthand for ever-more-sub-classified brain regions. Although, as a side note, I learned last Thursday during a lab meeting presentation that no matter how firm my intentions, I cannot seem to say dlPFC. Instead of a neat word-limit-approved acronym, I find myself pronouncing dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in a burst of desperate enunciation.

But the acronyms that float through my NCBI email alerts are not these brain region shorthands. Rather, they are the badges of newly minted techniques, or ideas, branded with a catchy, sexy acronym to help propel them into the neuroscience community’s awareness.

Remember my Name

(Aside - Attention: D. Bochner.)

There are a lot of neuroscientists out there. And all of us are constantly producing new research, new techniques, new publications. Standing out amongst all this noise can be an imperative; critical for attaining an elusive funding source, or a prized (by some) academic job. So it makes perfect sense to me that a researcher, armed with a novel technique (or combination of ideas) would seek to use a clever acronym as a way to catch the attention of her/his fellow researchers. Can we together admit to a feeling of professional jealous admiration for a colleague armed with an acronym? (Catherine, nicely done with SPLURgE. Casey, TRAP is so delightfully customizable: ArcTRAP, fosTRAP. Excellent work.)

Plus, how thrilling to hear your colleagues utter the creative symbol of your research efforts. The next best thing, perhaps, to the nomenclatural heights enjoyed by Golgi, Nissl, Purkinje, Brodmann; that age of naming, it seems, has passed. (Although vestiges persist; see the newly discovered Dua’s layer, so found and named by Harminder Singh Dua, U. Nottingham).

Acronyms are also clearly useful for condensing a complex technique into an easily stated verbal handle that can be readily passed along to PR departments, or thrown around in scientific discussions. My personal struggles with dlPFC aside, I think we can all agree that including “clear lipid-exchanged acrylamide-hybridized rigid imaging/immunostaining/in situ hybridization-compatible tissue-hydrogel” in a sentence would be a trial. Far easier to say “CLARITY”. And with the added benefit of an evocative name to entice readers, prospective users, and public audiences. Here too we find the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). Open to some good-natured ribbing for using “Brain” as the B in BRAIN? Sure. But ever so ready for prime-time publicity.

A Final Thought

The other week, during a grant application planning session, I was counseled that using a particular acronym-ed technique (hopefully soon to be published from my lab), could help my grants score. An acronym bringing a sense of the official, the innovative, where a colloquial description of a technique is merely… there. After receiving Summary Statements that praise my scientific questions, only to declaim the innovation of my techniques, I can’t argue with the impulse. Will the technique be critically necessary to answer my scientific questions? Maybe. Nevertheless, as I construct my research strategy, I’ll be spending some quality time considering whether a sexy acronym could catch the attention of that NIH review committee, and secure me the funding I need to help my lab stay in business.

The Acronyms

SPLURgE. From Chrisitan et al (2013). Sniffer Patch Laser Uncaging REsponse (SPLURge): an assay of regional differences in allosteric receptor modulation and neurotransmitter clearance. J Neurophysiol. Epub ahead of print. Link

TRAP. From Guenthner et al (2013). Permanent Genetic Access to Transiently Active Neurons via TRAP: Targeted Recombination in Active Populations. Neuron. 78(5):773-84. See previous blog post.  Or go see the paper directly. 

CLARITY. From Chung et al (2013). Structural and molecular interrogation of intact biological systems. Nature. 497(7449):332-7. Link

BRAIN Initiative. Via the NIH and the White House.


Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog