Spotlight on O*NET Users: Dr. R. Nathan Spreng

Dr. R. Nathan Spreng

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Harvard University, Department of Psychology

It’s a fact: O*NET has something for everyone. Even people investigating how the human brain works using it, sometimes to conduct breakthrough research science. Dr. Nathan Spreng, a psychologist at Harvard University, recently used the O*NET database to expand knowledge about possible relationships between occupation and brain degeneration in patients with dementia. A few years ago, neurologists began to notice that several artists and musicians, with frontotemporal dementia, had consistent brain atrophy in their left temporal lobes. The race was on to discover possible relationships between life occupations and frontotemporal dementia, a lesser known dementia than Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

Turns out, the best source for occupation information in studying relationships between brain atrophy and occupational characteristics is the O*NET database. And we know this is a fact because Dr. Spreng spent three or four months searching for the most reliable, most useful source of descriptors of the verbal, spatial, and artistic characteristics of occupations. Dr. Spreng says, “Actually, the database is so rich there is too much information for my purposes! All the detail on work activities, knowledge, skills and abilities—I had to do factor analysis to distill all that information about each occupation to a composite score that was easier to use. But O*NET is complete, consistent, reliable, and valid. It’s the best.”

Dr. Spreng found the O*NET database “fairly easy to use, because it already was in spreadsheet form. I had to work by hand initially, since I was starting with only 100 or so patients. But as the study expanded, we did a factor analysis on the whole database of occupations. Once you know what you want to do and how you want to do it, you’re set.”

A major section of Dr. Spreng’s doctoral thesis, completed at the University of Toronto under the supervision of neuropsychologist Dr. Brian Levine, will be published this winter in the journal Neuropsychologia as “Occupation Attributes Relate to Location of Atrophy in Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration.” There is a lot of information there, but the bottom line is that occupation selection in early adulthood is related to lateralized brain asymmetry in patients who develop the disease decades later, in the relatively deficient hemisphere. What you do for 40 years might well have something to do with where your brain degenerates, that is, if you develop frontotemporal dementia. It still isn’t clear what occupations do for the brain of healthy aging people.

Now that Dr. Spreng’s work has been accepted for publication, he anticipates that other neuroscientists and neurologists will use the O*NET occupation database and his factor analysis approach. “I would definitely share my occupation factor scores with other scientists. We are all working towards the same end, which is trying to understand the brain and how it is related to behavior, like in the activities people perform on the job,” says Dr. Spreng, explaining that although there is competition for grants and the attention of published findings, there is a foundation of collaboration in the field.

Indeed, Dr. Spreng is one of the first neuroscientists to use the O*NET occupation data to study dementia! He has conducted additional research with his occupation factor scores and this project currently is under peer review. A hint at his findings: Specific occupation demands that span decades may strengthen cognitive resistance to pathology. In other words, what you do for a living over decades might make you stronger (or weaker) in your ability to mentally fight off dementia symptoms.

It’s obvious that Dr. Spreng is happy to discuss his cutting-edge research with interested parties. But approach him later. He’s busy right now, happily focused on his wife, their 19-month-old son, and surely within the next few hours or days, their new daughter. “Yesterday we went to the zoo. Most of my time away from work revolves around family. You know; there are our non-work hours.”

For more information about the study, go to: More about Dr. Spreng’s research can be found at his website: