Cognitive neuroscientists specialize in cognition and mental functions. In other words, they’re experts in human cognitive development and the many psychological and physiologically factors related to it. These professionals are typically well versed in neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, and physiological psychology. They’re also concerned about how cognitive deficiencies affect behavior, language development, depression, emotions, and mental health.
Since there are many disciplines related to cognitive neuroscience, neuroscientists come from a myriad of backgrounds. Many cognitive neuroscientists work in the following fields: math, philosophy, linguistics, computer science, physics, neurology, psychiatry, bioengineering, and neurobiology.
Cognitive neuroscientists rely on their knowledge of behavioral genetics, cognitive genomics, electrophysiology, functional neuroimaging, cognitive psychology, and psychophysics while working with patients. Many cognitive neuroscientists study how brain lesions affect mental cognition. Technology has greatly enhanced understanding in this field.
Neuroscientists are primarily concerned with the following concepts:
- Brain composition and normal function
- Nervous system maintenance, maturation, and development
- The causes of psychiatric and neurologic disorders
- Developing and implementing the most effective therapies for people struggling with psychiatric and neurologic disorders
Implanting Brain Sensors
Neuroscientists are always conducting research to improve knowledge about the brain and its many functions. Many are now involved in researching and developing implantable brain sensors designed to enhance neurological function.
John Donohue is one of many neuroscientists working to develop implantable brain sensors designed to return some movement to people who’ve been paralyzed or suffered severe spinal cord injuries. Researchers also hope this emerging technology can be used to treat people recovering from strokes, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and other neurological problems. Since the brain is a complex organ, many researchers are focusing on improving specific brain components, such as the cerebral cortex.
During 2004, Donohue and his research colleagues inserted a brain sensor into a paralyzed person. The sensor increased brain activity, and when the paralyzed individual attempted to move a limb, the sensor was still indicating levels of brain activity. No movement occurred, but researchers were still satisfied with the results since at that point many neuroscientists did not believe it was possible for victims of severe spinal cord injuries to recover this level of brain activity.
Donohue and other neuroscientists eventually hope to develop implantable brain sensors and other technology intended to return normal neurological function to people who’ve suffered serious strokes or spinal cord injuries.
Neuroscience and Essential Tremor
Scientists employed at the Mayo Clinic are also attempting to develop paralysis reversal technology. Research into essential tremor, a neurological problem where victims experience uncontrollable tremors affecting basic activities such as eating, walking, and writing, is one area of specialized research being conducted at the Mayo Clinic.
Researchers at the hospital's Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) unit successfully located the section in a victim’s brain where this debilitating disorder had penetrated it, and they neutralized the problem utilizing an accelerometer, a device that located the source of the tremors and alleviated the symptoms.
Once the source of the problem was located, they implanted a small device under the scalp known as a pulse generator, a machine that continually transmits signals to the brain, which completely eradicated essential tremor in the patient. This is just the beginning of many technological breakthroughs being developed by neuroscientists that can potentially reverse paralysis and other debilitating neurological disorders.
DBS specialists are also developing treatments and technologies to assist people struggling with the following disorders:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Cluster headaches
- Chronic pain
- Tourette syndrome
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD) and severe anxiety and depression
If a career in neuroscience or neuropsychology interests you, there are numerous colleges and universities that offer degree programs in these or related subjects. Students enrolled in neuropsychology and science programs are required to complete various courses in chemistry, neurology, anatomy, biology, psychology, research methods, and math. Most organizations that employ neuroscientists only hire applicants holding PhDs.
Careers in Neuroscience
- Developmental Neuroscientists
- Cognitive Neuroscientists
- Behavioral Neuorscientists
- Clinical Neuroscientists
From Generalist to Specialist
Many students pursuing cognitive neuroscience careers major in broad disciplines, such as experimental psychology, during their undergraduate years. This makes it possible to obtain a well-rounded education before selecting a specialized graduate degree program. Students pursuing this route should be sure to take various courses in psychology, chemistry, biology, math, and neuroscience.
After completing a graduate degree program in a neuroscience related field, it's advantageous for those interested in research and development careers to obtain a job where they’ll acquire experience operating functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI) technology.
More direct career routes are available for people interested in cognitive neuroscience. Many universities offer graduate degree programs in cognitive neuroscience. Students completing these degree programs will be taught the specific skills and knowledge they’ll need to enter the field of cognitive neuroscience.
Career opportunities for cognitive neuroscientists exist at government agencies, the pharmaceutical industry, colleges and universities, hospitals and medical clinics, and many other types of organizations.
If this career is right for you, learn more about colleges and universities offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs in cognitive neuroscience or related fields in psychology.
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