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What is Neuroscience?

Learn about the field of neuroscience


Rapid advances in technology combined with knowledge about how the brain and nervous system work have ushered in progress once considered purely science fiction, but today falling under a growing area of scientific study called “neuroscience.”

Take, for example, the case of implanting a sensor into a paralyzed individual’s brain. The sensor detects thoughts that the individual has about moving an arm. These “thoughts” are then sent to a plug on the individual’s scalp, which sends signals to a computer that translates the signals into motor movements.

Or consider the practice of placing electrodes under a person’s scalp, electrodes connected to a battery-operated generator implanted under the skin near the individual’s collarbone. The result? An intervention for a brain-related disorder called “essential tremor.”

Both of these cutting-edge medical interventions wouldn’t have been possible without the field of Neuroscience, an area of specialty that wasn’t formalized into its own field until 1971. Since then, the amount of investigation and research completed by those working in the field has grown faster than most other scientific areas of thought and empirical study.

And those individuals with devastating brain and spinal cord injuries, brain diseases and disorders, are the main beneficiaries of these once unimaginable scientific advancements.


Neuroscience - a definition

The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) defines the field as the study of the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, and networks of sensory nerve cells called neurons. It is an interdisciplinary field, meaning that it integrates several disciplines, including psychology, biology, chemistry, and physics.

In studying the nervous system, the field adds to a body of knowledge about human thought, emotion, and behavior – the main area of expertise for those working in psychology, especially the field of Neuropsychology (for more info, see What is Neuropsychology?).

Both neuropsychologists and neuroscientists focus their research on the understanding of “brain” disorders, injuries, and deficits. For this reason, these scientists must have a solid understanding of how psychological processes relate to the brain’s structures and systems, or on the interrelated and inseparable connections between cognition and brain physiology.

To help those with brain disorders, neuroscientists first must understand normal brain functioning. Therefore, many neuroscientific investigations into abnormal brain functioning complement the science of normal brain functioning.

SfN describes three main goals of neuroscientists:

  • Understand and describe the human brain and how it functions normally.
  • Understand and describe how the nervous system develops, matures, and maintains itself through life.
  • Understand neurological and psychiatric disorders, and find ways to prevent or cure them.

Implanting brain sensors

Neuroscientists study a wide range of topics related to the brain and nervous system. Most specialize, however, on a particular disability or problem associated with one brain region or area. The implanting of brain sensors is one example of specialized neuroscientific research.

In an August 2010 interview with The New York Times, John Donohue detailed how his research into combining brain signals with computers resulted in BrainGate, the invention responsible for returning some voluntary movements to paralyzed individuals. He has focused on using BrainGate to help those who have had strokes, incurred spinal cord injuries, or suffer with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Donoghue, a professor of engineering and neuroscience at Brown University, told reporter Claudia Dreifus, in the article “Connecting Brains to the Outside World,” that when he entered graduate school in 1976, his desire was to learn how the brain works. But, he realized that that question was too broad, and he needed to break it down into a more easily studied sub-topic, which became “how does the cerebral cortex allow thoughts to become action?”

In the 1980s, he and colleagues from his laboratory worked on technologies that permitted them to distinguish where brain activity occurred when the body moved, such as when arms or legs moved. These technologies led to the invention of the brain sensor.

In 2004, Donoghue and other researchers implanted the sensor into an individual that had a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed. When they turned on BrainGate – the sensor attached to a scalp plug that’s attached to a computer – they could see activity in his brain “light up” when he thought about moving his left or right hand. In other words, even though his body couldn’t produce the movement, his brain still processed the command.

In the NYT article, Donohue related how up until that point, many assumed that brain function was reduced or nonexistent after a debilitating spinal cord injury. But this new technology pointed out that it was the connection between the brain and the desired movement that was injured, not the brain itself. In other words, there’s a break or disconnect between the brain the other parts of the nervous system.

“This has profound implications not for only BrainGate, but for anyone thinking about nervous system injuries,” Donohue told the NYT.

Ultimately, Donoghue said, at the goal of BrainGate is to return lives impacted by neurological injuries back to a state of normalcy, or as close as possible to the productive lives they had before the injuries or illnesses.

Neuroscience and essential tremor

Neuroscientists at the Mayo Clinic also want individuals suffering with brain and neurological disorders to regain normal functioning – and their livelihoods. In its quarterly publication, “Sharing Mayo Clinic,” Mayo describes how its research into deep brain stimulation (DBS) led to some of the first applications of this technology in the United States.

In one particular case, world-renowned violinist Roger Frisch, associate concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, thought his music career would be over after being diagnosed with a condition known as essential tremor.

A progressive neurological disorder, essential tremor results in tremors during certain movements, such as eating or writing. Tremors can also occur in the head, neck, jaw, and voice.

In Frisch’s case, the tremors occurred in his arms while performing. Kendall Lee, M.D., Ph.D., and specialist in DBS at Mayo Clinic, believed that locating the tremors’ source, or area of Frisch’s brain where the tremors materialized, could help alleviate them.

In order to accomplish this “localization,” Mayo’s surgical team had Frisch perform in the surgical suite where a device engineered by Mayo’s researchers measured the exact movement of Frisch’s hand, tracing and mapping the movement to the area of the activated brain.

The newsletter called the device an “accelerometer, a small semiconductor device that measures movement in three dimensions. It was attached to a violin bow and connected to an amplifier and radio system.”

The device transmitted data to a computer monitor where the research team saw the genesis and progress of the tremor as the bow moved across the strings. Electrodes were placed on Frisch’s skull where the researchers located the misfiring brain signals, and the tremors stopped.

Frisch then went into surgery so that the wires could be placed under the scalp and connected to a battery-operated pulse generator that sends constant electrical pulses to the brain. The generator is implanted under the skin by the collarbone.

The newsletter reports that DBS is also used to treat other neurological and psychological disorders, including:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Cluster headaches
  • Chronic pain
  • Dystonia
  • Tourette syndrome
  • Epilepsy
  • Hard-to-treat depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder

If you are interested in the fields of Neuropsychology and Neuroscience, in research and medical facilities designed to treat individuals suffering from brain injuries and dysfunctions, contact schools offering degrees in psychology. One career path for neuroscience professionals is to major in neuropsychology and take additional coursework in biology, physiology, anatomy, chemistry, and other sciences. A Ph.D. is required to work in most areas of neuroscience.

Careers in Neuroscience

  • Neuroanatomists
  • Developmental Neuroscientists
  • Cognitive Neuroscientists
  • Behavioral Neuorscientists
  • Clinical Neuroscientists

Neuroscience at a Biotechnology Company

Diagnosing traumatic brain injury (TBI) remains a tedious and often difficult process for many healthcare professionals, especially in cases of mild or moderate TBI.  As a result, some individuals don’t receive treatment or intervention for possible neurological deficits.

Banyan Biomarkers, a Florida-based privately held company wants to solve that problem.

Founded by two neuroscientists, Banyan’s researchers are trying to identify “biomarkers” in blood tests that accurately predict head injury. Research by Banyan’s scientists and published in the journal “Critical Care Medicine,” stated that a 66-patient study of individuals with severe brain injury had elevated levels of UCH-LI – 16 times the level of those without a head injury.

Banyan’s scientists also stated in another article for the “European Journal of Neuroscience” that laboratory studies with rats showed blood tests with increased levels of UCH-LI for those with brain injury and stroke.

Battlefield explosions and sports injuries often leave individuals dazed but seemingly fine, performing some neurological tests adequately, but actually needing medical treatment, rest and recovery.

According to the International Brain Injury Association, the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) is currently used to divide individuals into mild, moderate, and severe injury. This is a symptom-based neurological test, checking vital signs, heart rate, blood pressure, and the patient’s thinking in terms of memory and consciousness.

A blood test showing a definitive marker for brain injury would significantly increase an accurate diagnosis for those with mild and moderate head injuries.

“Of the mild TBI patients 40-50% suffer persistent neurological problems from one to three months following injury, and 25% after one year,” according to the International Brain Injury Association website.

Even severe cases of brain injury can be hard to recognize. In 2009, actress Natasha Richardson died from a skiing accident that injured her head. Assuring her family that she was fine, she did not receive medical treatment as quickly as her injury required.

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