What is Neuroscience?

Neuroscience, sometimes referred to as Neural Science, is the study of the human nervous system, how the nervous systems works, how it is structured and how it develops. Scientists who dedicate themselves to the study of neuroscience are known as Neuroscientists. The large majority of neuroscientists focus their research on the brain and how it influences cognitive function and behavior. Neuroscience not only seeks to understand how the nervous system functions under normal circumstances but also how the nervous system functions in individual suffering from neurological, neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders.

Three Main Goals of Neuroscience

According to the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) the three main objectives of neuroscience are to

  1. Understand the human brain and how it functions
  2. Understand and describe how the central nervous system (CNS) develops, matures, and maintains itself.
  3. Analyze and understand neurological and psychiatric disorders, and discover methods to prevent or cure them.

Advances in technology combined with an increased knowledge of how the brain and nervous system work have lead to many new breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience. Individuals with traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, psychological disorders, and brain diseases are now the beneficiaries of once unimaginable scientific advancements. What was once viewed purely as science fiction is now a focus of mainstream scientific research and medical intervention.

Historically, neuroscience has been classified as a subdivision of biology. Today it is an interdisciplinary science aligned closely with other disciplines including psychology, medicine, linguistics, chemistry, philosophy, engineering, mathematics and even computer science. Some researcher still purport that neuroscience is the same as neurobiology but neuroscience encompasses much more.

Modern-day neuroscientists are involved in a greater scope of fields and study than ever before. Not only do they study cellular aspects of the nervous system, but also functional, evolutionary, molecular, computational and medical aspects.

A Brief History of Neuroscience

Ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was the vessel of an individuals intelligence. Consequently, when they mummified dead bodies, they would remove and discard the brain, but leave the heart inside.

It wasn’t until 1,700 BC that the brain becomes the focus of attention with respect to function and intelligence. The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, Ancient Egyptian writings on the brain, describe the symptoms, diagnosis, and probable outcomes of two individuals that had received head wounds. This is the first written record connecting the brain to physical health and function.

Alcmaeon, a student of Pythagoras who lived around 500 B.C., wrote that the human brain is where the mind is, whereby extending man's understanding of the brain to include thought processes. Several years later, Hippocrates perpetuated Alcmaeon’s claim by asserting the “brain is the seat of intelligence”.

Several hundred years later (384-322 BC), the Greek philosopher and polymath Aristotle challenged the premise set by his predecessors when he proclaimed that the human brain is the body's mechanism for cooling blood and the heart is the seat of intelligence. He went on to suggest that humans behave more humanely and rationally than animals because our larger brains cool down our blood more efficiently.

It wasn't until the invention of the microscope in 1590 that we were able to gain a deeper understanding of the brain and its relationship to human processes.

Early Italian physician, scientist, and pathologist Gamillo Golgi (1843-1926) was one of the first modern-day researchers to provide any meaningful understanding of brain physiology. Using silver chromate salt Golgi was able to show what single neurons looked like. Building on Golgi’s work, Spanish pathologist and neuroscientist, Santiago Cajal (1852-1934) hypothesized that the neuron is the smallest functional unit of the brain. For their revolutionary work and discoveries, Golgi and Cajal were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1906.

Other 19th century scientists including Hohannes Peter Müller, a German physiologist, anatomist and herpetologist, Hermann von Hemholtz, a German physicist and physician, and Emil du Bois-Reymond, a German physician and physiologist, greatly increased the understanding of brain function when they demonstrated the electrical excitability of brain neurons. Specifically, they showed that the electrical state of adjacent neurons are influenced by electrically excited neurons.

While Müller, Hemholtz, and Bois-Reymond were making their discoveries, French physician and anatomist Pierre Paul Broca, while working with individuals with brain damage, concluded that the brain had several independent regions, each responsible for different human function.

Modern Neuroscience

Most meaningful advancements and discoveries in neuroscience didn't occur until after the 1950s. Advances in neuroscience following 1950 were due to other discoveries and progress achieved in related fields, such as electrophysiology, computational neuroscience, and molecular biology. New technologies also fueled advances in our understanding of the brain, nervous system and neuroscience. Neuroscientists are now able to much more effectively study the nervous system's structure, development, functions, and disorders.

In the early 1980s, scientists including Donoghue, a professor of engineering and neuroscience at Brown University, developed technologies that allowed them to determine exactly where brain activity occurs when a body part (arm, leg, finger, etc.) moves. Their discoveries led to the invention of brain sensors.

In an experiment conducted in 2004, Donoghue and his colleagues used brain sensors to monitor brain response within a person who had suffered a severe spinal cord injury that left him completely paralyzed. Monitoring the brain sensors they were able to see brain activity every time he thought about moving his arms or legs – even though his body couldn't produce the movement.

While neuroscientists usually study several aspects of neuroscience at the same time, neuroscience is categorized into the following branches based on research areas and subjects of study.

  • Behavioral Neuroscience – attempts to understand how the brain affects behavior. Focuses on biological bases of behavior.
  • Cellular Neuroscience – focuses on the study of the form and physiological properties of neurons that make up the brain and nervous system.
  • Affective Neuroscience – employs animal research and experimentation to analyze how neurons behave in relation to human emotions.
  • Cognitive Neuroscience – is the study and analysis of cognitive function within humans. This branch of neuroscience draws from psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, and neuroscience. There are general frameworks for cognitive neuroscience. These include behavioral/experimental or computational/modeling.
  • Clinical Neuroscience – is the study of disorders of the nervous system.
  • Computational Neuroscience – attempts to understand how the brain computes information. Study of brain function is carried out using advanced computer simulation and techniques from physics, mathematics and other computational disciplines.
  • Developmental Neuroscience – studies the development of the nervous system at the cellular level.
  • Cultural Neuroscience – studies how beliefs and other cultural influences mold the brain and genes over time.
  • Molecular Neuroscience – attempts to understand how individual molecules influence the nervous system.
  • Neuroengineering – apply engineering principles and techniques in an attempt to better understand, repair and improve neural systems.
  • Neuroinformatics – uses and analyzes data collected from all areas of neural research to better understand and treat neural and neuralogical diseases. Neuroinformatics entails analysis, advanced modeling, and simulation of data.
  • Neuroimaging – is a branch within the discipline of medical imaging that focuses exclusively on the brain. Neuroimaging is employed to help diagnose brain diseases, study the brain, and identify how the brain responds to different activities.
  • Neurolinguistics – attempts to better understand the neural mechanisms that influence the acquistion, comprehension and speaking of language.
  • Neurophysiology – attempts to better understand the relationship between brain functions and they effect individual parts of the body. Uses physiological techniques, such as stimulation with electrodes, to analyze and study various nervous system functions.
  • Paleoneurology – employs analysis of prehistoric fossils to study the evoluation, development and processes of the brain.
  • Social Neuroscience – attempts to understand how biological systems relate to behavior and social interactions.
  • Systems Neuroscience – maps the flow of data within the Central Nervous System (CNS) in an attempt to better understand the workings and processes of the CNS. System neuroscience uses information gathered and conclusions to better explain behavioral functions.

Careers in Neuroscience

Education in neuroscience will prepare students for a range of career opportunities. Understanding brain function and dysfunction, a fort' of neuroscience, is critical in many fields including, medicine, law, psychology, education, engineering and even public policy. And since neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field of study, students learn to apply knowledge and concepts from many different disciplines to solve complex problems. Receiving advanced training in a highly relevant field will provide neuroscience students with a variety of career options.

Traditional neuroscience careers include the following:

  • Neuroscientist – is a general title for someone who studies the nervous system.
  • Neuroanatomist – someone who studies the anatomy (structure) of the nervous system.
  • Neuroanatomist – someone who studies the anatomy (structure) of the nervous system.
  • Neurobiologist – studies the biology of the nervous system.
  • Neurochemist – studies neurochemicals, including neurotransmitters and other molecules such as neuro-active drugs that affect neuron function. Neurochemists analyze the chemistry of the nervous system.
  • Neurological Surgeon – these are medical doctors who perform sensitive surgeries on the brain, spine and other parts of the central nervous system.
  • Neurological Surgeon – these are medical doctors who perform sensitive surgeries on the brain, spine, and other parts of the central nervous system.
  • Neurologist – these are medical doctors who diagnose and treat disorders of the nervous system.
  • Neuropathologist – these are medical doctors or scientists (Phds) who study diseases of the nervous system.
  • Neuropharmacologist – medical professional and scientists who study the effect of drugs on the nervous system and behavior.
  • Neurophysiologist – study the physiology of the nervous system.
  • Neuropsychologist – psychologists that focus on the study of relationships between the brain and behvior as well as cognitive function.
  • Neuropharmacologist – medical professional and scientists who study the effect of drugs on the nervous system and behavior.
  • Neuroradiologist – use medical imagig technologies including MRI, CT scan, X-ray and angiography to diagnose diseases and disorders of the nervous system.
  • Psychobiologist (Biological Psychologist) – apply principles of biology (in particular neurobiology) to the study of behavior.
  • Psychiatrist – medical doctor who diagnoses and treats mental disorders.
  • Neuroscience Nurse – a nurse who cares for and treats patients with neurological disorders. These professional typically work with other neuroscience-related health professionals including medical doctors.
  • Psychophysicist – investigate the relationship between physical stimuli and the perceptions and sensations they affect.
  • Electroneurodiagnostic Technician – monitors the electrical activity of the brain and spinal cord.

In addition to the careers listed above neuroscience students often pursue careers in many other fields including Audiology, Occupational Therapy, Speech Pathology, Drug rehabilitation, Neuroethology, Artificial Intelligence, Neuroprosthetics, Neural Engineering, Neuroethics, Education, Linguistics, and Physical Therapy to name a few.

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