Psychology Degree Guide: Neuroscience
Neuroscience is the study of the brain and nervous system. It is the basic research that informs fields such as neurology, psychology, neuroimaging, and many other disciplines that focus on cognizance, intelligence, and, most importantly, diseases of the brain. Although much of neuroscientists’ work overlaps with these other fields, neuroscience is distinct in that it is a research discipline, not a medical practice.
Attempts to study the brain go back thousands of years to Ancient Mesopotamia, when the first use of mind-altering substances was recorded, modern neuroscience didn’t mature as a subject of research until the late 19th century when John Hughlings Jackson began to understand how different sections of the brain are responsible for different functions. For example, the frontal lobe controls much of our grammar, decision-making, and ability to analyze problems logically, the occipital lobe is linked to our sense of sight, the limbic system is associated with emotions, and so on. Although researchers are just beginning to understand the nervous system, these localized functions of the brain are at the core of neuroscience and the field’s connection to other disciplines.
Since the turn of the century, advances in technology have allowed researchers to understand the nervous system on a smaller and smaller scale. The 1950s and 60s saw the introduction of basic models of the electro-chemical processes of the nervous system, refined by researchers such as Richard FitzHugh and Jin-Ichi Nagumo, as mathematical simulations. They began to understand the nervous system as an enormous network of neurons that transmit signals via synapses from the brain, through the spinal cord, to all other parts of the body. Neurons are the cells that comprise the nervous system, and are distinguishable from other cells by their sensitivity to electrical impulses. Synapses are the specialized gaps in between neurons over which neurotransmitters (signals) must cross.
Understanding the specific functions of the brains and its constituent neurons allows doctors and researchers in fields outside of neuroscience to better understand medical conditions. Through neuroscience, for instance, doctors were able to determine the causes of aphasia, which is the loss of language ability because of damage to the part of the brain that makes communication possible, usually due to a stroke. Other conditions studied in neuroscience include Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, brain cancer, and stroke. Disorders that are often diagnosed and treated in the fields of psychology and psychiatry are also studied on the most basic, biological level in neuroscience, including ADHD and insomnia, although there is much overlap between neurological and psychological conditions. The former is often the cause of the latter.
Neuroscience is a multidisciplinary field, so its researchers come from a variety of backgrounds. Aspiring neuroscientists begin their careers by earning a bachelor’s degree in some field, not necessarily neuroscience itself. Later, students specialize in one of the associated fields at the graduate level. Either medical school or an advanced degree program in a science may lead to a career in the neuroscience, although many universities today have specialized departments specifically for this field. According to the U.S. News and World Report, the best graduate schools in the nation for neuroscience and neurobiology in 2010 were Harvard, Stanford, UC San Francisco, Johns Hopkins University, and MIT. However, students may also study neurology, biology, and other disciplines and still become neuroscientists as long as they emphasize research over practice in their post-graduate work. Many neuroscientists may fall under multiple career labels, including physicians.
Indeed, neuroscience itself is an umbrella term for several narrower disciplines that students will concentrate on at the doctoral level. Some of these sub-fields include:
- computational neuroscience, which is the use of simulations to mimic the processes of the brain, especially through software. This discipline is closely tied to neuroinformatics.
- neuroimaging, which is the use of medical imaging techniques, such as computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to gain a structural understanding of the brain.
- cognitive neuroscience, which is the attempt to establish a biological foundation for the study of awareness and thought in human beings, a discipline that often intersects with select sub-fields of psychology.
- cellular neuroscience, which is the reconstruction of the nervous system from its most basic level where synapses, neurons, and axons are studied. This field is closely related to molecular and developmental neuroscience.
The following are some of the best resources available for neuroscience research. Students or professionals may be interested in the “Publications” section where they can find cutting-edge scientific papers on neuroscience. More casual users in search of introductory information may browse “General Education Resources,” while patients with brain conditions or their loved ones may find the “Condition-Specific Organizations” section useful, especially the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke if the affliction they suffer is not one of the most common.
Organizations and Companies
- The American Academy of Neurology, or AAN, is an advocacy, certification, and information-sharing organization that keeps up several publications and sets standards for neurology training programs in the U.S. Medical facilities and private practices also set standards based on AAN criteria.
- The American Association of Neuroscience Nurses is responsible for certifying nurses in the field through its CNRN examination. The organization also maintains several publications and helps new nurses find jobs.
- The American Neurological Association unites doctors and neuroscientists to exchange research at one of its yearly meetings. The ANA takes responsibility for providing career and education opportunities for professionals in neurology and neuroscience as well.
- The American Society of Neuroimaging combines research in neuroscience and radiology to find technological solutions to understanding the brain. The ASN sets standards in neuroimaging training programs and maintains the requisite tests.
- NeuroScience, Inc., a solutions company that connects patients with doctors, maintains separate sections for each. Information about the company’s products and some general descriptions of key concepts in neuroscience are available.
- The Society for Neuroscience is a group of tens of thousands of professionals, including doctors and researchers, who study the brain. The society holds yearly meetings, maintains numerous publications, provides advocacy, and posts educational resources.
- The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography, a publication maintained by the Society for Neuroscience, is organized into six volumes, and each volume has separate articles for over a dozen major figures in neuroscience research. The full text of these bios is available in PDF format.
- The Journal of Neuroscience is available from its own website and provides a search engine and “Archives” section for finding articles from 1981 to today. Although abstracts are available, full text articles can only be viewed with registration.
- Neuroscience can be purchased from ScienceDirect and read online as PDFs. All issues from 1976 onward have been compiled onto one site, and both abstracts and previews can be accessed for free.
- Neuroscience Net is actually a compilation of full text articles, with visual aids, maintained by Dr. John E. Johnson, Jr. The articles are categorized by sub-discipline, including neuroanatomy, molecular neurobiology, and so on.
General Educational Resources
- Internet Neuroscience Resources, from the University of Washington, hosts a comprehensive list of neuroscience links in alphabetical order. Many of the links connect users to additional lists of resources.
- Milestones in Neuroscience Research is an extremely detailed timeline of important events in the history of neuroscience, starting in 4,000 B.C. The resource is a part of Professor H. Chudler’s Neuroscience for Kids website.
- Neuroscience, 2nd Edition, a textbook by Dale Purves et al., is provided by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The book cannot be read from cover to cover online, although entire sections are displayed if users search for key terms in neuroscience.
- NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, part of the National Institutes of Health, is a site specifically geared toward researchers, students, and teachers. Links to professional training programs, teaching aids, and ongoing research projects are available on the website.
- The Whole Brain Atlas, from Harvard Medical School, is a large collection of interactive brain scans that demonstrate typical brains versus brains affected by degenerative, cerebrovascular, neoplastic, and inflammatory conditions. Information about the patient and the context is provided with each set of slides.
- The Brown Institute for Brain Science provides tabs for the usual information of note to prospective students of Brown University’s Department of Neuroscience. However, there are also short articles available on key research questions, including “How do we see?” and “How do we communicate?”
- HWNI Technology Centers are four laboratory facilities in the Helen Willis Neuroscience Institute at Berkley. Two of them, the Brain Imaging Center and the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, provide articles and information from Berkley courses.
- The McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT is a neuroscience laboratory and research hub, and an organization that accepts volunteers and donations. The “Science and Impact” section gives basic information on different neurological processes, such as cognition, and brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and so on.
- The Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience, from Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Neuroscience, has a useful “Research” tab with general explanations of the topics studied in neuroscience. A link to the Mind/Brain Institute is available from this section, which has a helpful “Resources” area.
News and Current Research
- Neurology/Neuroscience News, a part of Medical News Today, is a list of articles filtered by relevance to the titular subjects. The articles are generally compiled from other sources, and academic articles are specially labeled.
- Neuroscience, from Alltop, organizes headlines about neuroscience and the brain in general from multiple publications throughout the Internet. For example, five brain-related articles from MSN’s “Neuroscience” section, five from the “Neuroethics & Law Blog,” and so on, are listed.
- Neuroscience, the relevant section from MITnews, is a simple list of articles organized by date. Each article is usually specific to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s own neuroscience research.
- Neuroscience News is a section of ScienceDaily, which makes information from scientific journals and other sources accessible to the lay audience. Related categories, such as mental health, conditions of the brain, and drug use can be clicked on to filter the articles.
- Neuroscience News is a simple website that organizes its news by categories, including neurogenetics and synaptic plasticity. Books, research, and other resources are available on the site as well.
- The American Stroke Association is primarily directed toward patients and patients’ friends and family members, providing information on preventing strokes, coping with the effects of strokes on one’s lifestyle, and the science behind strokes. There is also a separate section for medical and scientific professionals where they can learn more about the ASA’s standards and treatment aims.
- The Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis maintains publications, accepts donations, holds symposiums, and generally furthers research on the U.S.’s most common degenerative disease. Numerous fact sheets and advice pages are available for patients and patients’ loved ones.
- The Epilepsy Foundation of America is much like the other organizations dedicated to a particular brain condition, providing advocacy, collecting donations, supporting research, and setting treatment standards nationwide. However, the site also a large section entitled “Living with Epilepsy” that connects users to organizations that focus on a particular kind of patient, including adolescents, women, and senior citizens.
- The National Brain Tumor Society, in addition to offering opportunities for membership, volunteerism, and donations, also maintains a section on news and research. The NBTS can assist with research grants and spreading awareness of brain cancer.
- The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke provides essential information on hundreds of conditions in alphabetical order and then provides links for patients or students to learn more. News, current research, and educational programs are available from the website as well.
- The National Parkinson Foundation is a charity that spreads awareness and supports research on one of the most prevalent degenerative diseases in the developed world. The website provides opportunities for donors and volunteers to lend help.
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