What is Behavioral Neuroscience?
Learn about the field of behavioral neuroscience
Two mothers stand talking at a school event, one the mother of a 16-year-old girl, the other a mother of a 16-year-old son. The two teenagers have been friends since grade-school, have grown up together, paralleled each other in grades, sports, and social skills – except for the last year or two when the mother of the son notices some major behavioral differences between the two teens.
This mother notices that her son is more impulsive, making decisions that verge on more risky behaviors. And he doesn’t take his grades or college entrance exams too seriously, too self-assured that he’ll get into “some” college. He is disorganized, forgetting homework assignments and upcoming tests, and struggles with planning ahead on long-term projects.
For many teens, the gap between girls’ maturity levels and boys’ is wide, as girls seem to organize themselves better, plan ahead for deadlines – simply focus better and know how to strategize to achieve desired results.
Other parents overhearing this conversation wouldn’t be all that surprised. This isn’t a salacious, newsworthy story. Many parents have similar stories. But for a behavioral neuroscientist who happens to be within earshot, this conversation would be highly intriguing.
In fact, a behavioral neuroscientist would probably be taking mental notes, thinking about the specific behaviors associated with each teen. If the scientist happens to focus his or her research on the brain’s frontal cortex, this scientist would probably have some worthwhile input as well.
The field of Behavioral Neuroscience focuses on the biology of behavior, combining the psychology of perception, learning, memory, cognition, motivation and emotion with underlying neural and physiological processes. A behavioral neuroscientist would be able to share the latest research on teen behaviors and the connection of these behaviors to brain biology – some of the most popular and groundbreaking research taking place in the field today.
The Prefrontal Cortex
In 1999, the National Research Council, an organization committed to scientific research and providing elected leaders, policy makers, and the public with results from empirically based studies, stated that one of the most remarkable discoveries over the last decade was the amount of change that occurs in the adolescent brain. (see Adolescence Developmental Psychology).
Since that time, behavioral neuroscientists have found even more evidence of rapid brain growth and change among teens, specifically in the area of the frontal cortex. In general, these scientists have found that girls’ brains mature faster than boys.
Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, has found other remarkable events related to frontal cortex. His research finds that the frontal lobes, the part of the brain responsible for the executive functions of judgment, organization, planning, and strategizing, thickens throughout childhood until about age 11 in girls and age 12 in boys. Then at puberty, this gray matter starts changing. In particular, the gray matter of the frontal lobes starts thinning or pruning.
In an online interview with PBS’s Frontline, Giedd hypothesizes that only the neurons and connections that are used during this pruning stage will be the ones to survive - hence the “use it or lose it” adage.
Giedd states in the interview: “If a teen is doing music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hard-wired. If they’re lying on the couch or playing video games or MTV, those are the cells and connections that are going to survive.”
Giedd also goes on to say that other differences between the brains of adolescent girls and boys are also apparent to brain researchers. The basal ganglia, located at the base of the brain that communicates with other brain areas such as the frontal lobe, is larger in girls than boys. This might explain why girls tend to do better than boys with higher executive functioning skills.
Nurture Your Children Well
Nurturing children in early life has a direct impact on their social behaviors later in life, according to a study published in the online journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. (see also Childhood Developmental Psychology).
Two researchers found that by altering early social experiences in prairie voles significantly altered adult relationships and behaviors such as bonding, trust, and social awareness.
The research was conducted by Todd Ahern, a graduate student at Emory University in the Neuroscience Program, and Larry Young, Ph.D. professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Yerkes Research Center and Emory University School of Medicine.
The two studied vole pups - small, highly social rodents – reared by single mothers (SM) and both parents (BP).
The SM and BP-reared voles received differing levels of neonatal care, creating different social bonding levels as adults. BP pups entered into life-long partnerships faster than SM-reared pups, and also showed more interest in nurturing other voles in their communal families.
Oxytocin levels were also different between the two groups of voles. The researchers believe that the altering levels of oxytocin, a hormone found in the brain that influences maternal labor and suckling, also has a direct effect on adult social behaviors, and plan to examine that relationship in more studies.
Voles were chosen for the study because they often establish life-long bonds with mates.
Additional areas of research
In addition to studying normal biological brain development and associated behaviors, behavior neuroscientists also study the connection between brain dysfunction and medical illnesses, and environmental and cultural factors associated with brain function.
For example, they have linked abnormalities in the basal ganglia with Parkinson’s disease and Huntington disease. In addition to these two disorders, behavioral neuroscientists study:
- Alzheimers disease
- Clinical depression
- Panic and anxiety disorders
- Substance abuse
Studies are wide ranging, and use mainly non-human species that have biological similarities to humans. In the last few years, however, more behavioral neuroscientists are using human subjects to conduct research, especially when employing neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI. (for more info, see neuroimaging)
Here are some of the studies contributed to by behavioral neuroscientists. These examples were reported in the online journal ScienceDaily.
- Emory University researchers have found that the prelimbic cortex - part of the prefrontal cortex - is possibly involved with fear and anxiety, a finding that could aid in the diagnosis of and treatment for anxiety, panic disorders, and phobias.
- A University of Toronto study displayed the areas of the brain where emotional fear, memory, and pain become permanently etched.
- A team of Chinese researchers and a University of Oregon psychologist has found that training in a meditation technique produces structural changes in brain connectivity by boosting efficiency in a brain area that helps a person regulate goal-setting behaviors.
- A study published in “Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology” shows the effects of alcohol intoxication on reasoning and problem-solving abilities. For the first time, the study also points to a reason why some individuals, still intoxicated, feel they have recovered enough to drive after drinking.
- A researcher from Tel Aviv University has developed a new tool for use in studying mice that carry a mutated gene that leads to a disease called vanishing white matter (VWM), an illness that destroys brain myelin.
- St. Jude Children's Research Hospital found that a gene called Prox1 plays a major role in the normal development of a brain structure (see Brain Structure) critical for learning and memory, a gene that nurtures the cells vital for making new memories and which stays active throughout the lifespan.
How to become a behavioral neuroscientist
Classes in psychology, biology, math, computer programming, cell biology and chemistry are needed to enter graduate school in this field. Classes in behavioral neuroscience, such as the relationships between behavior and the brain, hormones and/or drugs are also good electives.
As an undergraduate, research experience gained through working with a faculty member in his or her laboratory is highly recommended. (explore bachelor degree programs in psychology)
Behavioral Neuroscientists usually focus their research within a specific topic area. Usually a Ph.D. is required for this type of work. However, those with master’s degrees can find work assisting another scientist in running his or her laboratory. Many pharmaceutical laboratories also hire those with master’s degrees.
Digital Behaviors and The Brain
Five neuroscientists decided to test their own brain-behavior relationship in a rather unorthodox adventure: taking a trip for one week to the wilderness in order to understand what happens to brains when disconnected from digital devices.
New York Times reporter Matt Richtel chronicled the adventure, and wrote of it in an August 15, 2010 article for the Times. All five researchers study and research areas of brain-behavior relationships, specifically how the brain functions in terms of attention (see Attention), memory, and learning.
The scientists spent a week in May 2010 rafting on the San Juan River, and camping in remote areas of Utah where cellphone service is unavailable and e-mail wasn’t available. They were asked to leave their laptops behind. They wanted to understand how technology changes how people think and behave, and if a week of rest and relaxation in nature could possibly reverse technology’s impact.
The trip’s organizer, University of Utah’s David Strayer, said in the article that too much digital stimulation can “take people who would be functioning okay and put them in a range where they’re not psychologically healthy.”
Strayer and University of Kansas researcher Paul Atchley study compulsive cellphone use by adolescents. Both were proponents for the trip and its implications, stating that heavy use of technology inhibits deep thought and can provoke anxiety, and retreating to nature helps negate those effects.
But the most prominent scientist, University of Illinois researcher Art Kramer was a skeptic. He is head of the Beckman Institute, a position that pays an annual salary of $300,000 and requires directing 1,000 other scientists. On the drive to the river, this scientist was checking his Blackberry for a message on news of a $25 million military grant. He told his staff to send a text message to an emergency satellite phone if they heard before he returned from the trip.
The others asserted this isn’t something that can’t wait a few days to receive. They maintain that it’s this type of “urgent” thinking around digital information that distracts individuals and impacts focus.
As the trip progressed, the men camped alongside the river, drank beer, and had long, introspective talks about current brain research addressing how people learn better after being out in nature. As they kayaked, they discussed better ways to study the effects of constant e-mail and cellphone interruptions. They pondered whether attention and focus are affected by simply anticipating incoming digital messages.
They took strenuous hikes, and observed animals and nature on the river’s banks. By the end of the second day of the trip, the skeptic Kramer hadn’t checked for messages – including the one about the grant - nor had he read the stack of papers he brought with him. He admitted that the group had notched down a level, becoming less tense, more relaxed, and more reflective.
The group’s leader Strayer called it the “third-day syndrome.” The article stated that even the more skeptical scientists on the trip said something happened to their brains on the trip that reinforced the scientific discussions – a finding that could be important to helping people cope amidst constant digital noise.
Finding a way to get people to unplug and relax will lead to more creativity, Strayer said. Going back to nature is one viable way to accomplish this.
By the trip’s end, Kramer still doesn’t feel like the trip transformed him, but he admitted something did get the scientists to think about their research in ways they wouldn’t have before. He does want to investigate further the benefits of nature on the brain, whether nature clears thoughts or if it’s a combination of the physical exertion combined with nature.
If anything, the neuroscientists felt that more creative, productive talk occurred than if they would have taken the more traditional academic “retreat” at a hotel or conference center.