Neuroscientists study the brain and its cognitive functions.
Neuroscientists focus on the brain and its impact on behavior and cognitive (thinking) functions. They also investigate what happens to the nervous system when people have neurological, psychiatric, and neurodevelopmental disorders.
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Neuroscience has traditionally been classed as a subdivision of biology. These days, it is an interdisciplinary science that liaises closely with other disciplines, such as mathematics, linguistics, engineering, computer science, chemistry, philosophy, psychology, and medicine.
Some say that neuroscience means the same as neurobiology. However, neurobiology looks at the biology of the nervous system, while neuroscience refers to anything to do with the nervous system.
Neuroscientists are involved in a much wider scope of fields today than before. They study the cellular, functional, evolutionary, computational, molecular, cellular, and medical aspects of the nervous system.
The history of neuroscience
The ancient Egyptians thought the seat of intelligence was in the heart. Because of this belief, during the mummification process, they would remove the brain but leave the heart in the body.
The earliest writings on the brain were found in the 1700 BC Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus. The word "brain" is mentioned eight times when describing the symptoms, diagnosis, and likely outcomes of two people who had head wounds - compound fractures of the skull.
Alcmaeon (Around 500 BC) - varying views on the brain began to emerge in Ancient Greece. Alcmaeon, believed to be a student of Pythagoras, wrote that the brain is where the mind is; he was probably the first person in history to express the idea in writing. Hippocrates soon followed, saying the brain is the seat of intelligence.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) - a Greek philosopher and polymath, went slightly off the mark by saying that the brain is a blood-cooling mechanism and that the heart is the seat of intelligence. He argued that humans behave more rationally than animals because our larger brains cool down hot blood, thus preventing hot-bloodedness.
Herophilus and Erasistratus (circa 300-240 BC) - Herophilus of Calcedonia, a Greek physician, and Erasistratus of Ceos, a Greek anatomist and royal physician, are known to have made considerable contributions to brain and nervous system anatomy. Unfortunately, their writings were lost - we only know about their contributions through secondary sources.
Galen of Pergamon (129-200) - a Greek anatomist who worked in Rome, said that the cerebrum was where the senses were processed because it is soft, while the cerebellum controls muscles because it is denser than the brain.
The invention of the microscope allowed for new research in many branches of science.
The microscope (1590s) - probably invented in the Netherlands in 1590, allowed for a much deeper understanding of the brain.
Golgi (1843-1926) - During the late 1980s, Gamillo Golgi an Italian physician, pathologist, and scientist, used silver chromate salt to show what single neurons looked like.
Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) - a Spanish pathologist, histologist, and neuroscientist, took Golgi's work further and formed the neuron doctrine: a hypothesis that the neuron is the functional unit of the brain. In 1906, Golgi and Cajal were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their extensive works and categorizations of neurons in the brain.
Hermann von Hemholtz (1821-1894) - toward the end of the 19th century, von Hemholtz, a German physician and physicist, with a group of other scientists, demonstrated the electrical excitability of neurons, and how the electrical state of neighboring neurons were affected by an electrically stimulated neuron.
Pierre Paul Broca (1824-1880) - a French physician, surgeon, anatomist, and anthropologist, worked on patients who had brain damage. He came to the conclusion that different regions in the brain were involved in specific functions.
John Hughlings Jackson (1835-1911) - an English neurologist, through observations of patients with epilepsy, worked out how the motor cortex was organized while watching seizure progression through the body.
Carl Wernicke (1848-1905) - a German physician, anatomist, psychiatrist, and neuropathologist, believed that certain parts of the brain were responsible for understanding and uttering language.
Neuroscience during the twentieth century and today
From the 1950s onward, the scientific study of the nervous system made huge advances, mainly because of the progress achieved in other and related fields, such as computational neuroscience, electrophysiology, and molecular biology.
Neuroscientists were able to study the nervous system's structure, functions, development, abnormalities, and ways it can be altered.
The major branches of modern neuroscience
The following branches of neuroscience can be broadly categorized in the following disciplines (neuroscientists usually cover several branches at the same time):
Neuroimaging is used by medical professionals to diagnose and monitor brain conditions.
- Affective neuroscience - in most cases, research is carried out on laboratory animals and looks at how neurons behave in relation to emotions.
- Behavioral neuroscience - the study of the biological bases of behavior. Looking at how the brain affects behavior.
- Cellular neuroscience - the study of neurons, including their form and physiological properties at cellular level.
- Clinical neuroscience - looks at the disorders of the nervous system, while psychiatry, for example, looks at the disorders of the mind.
- Cognitive neuroscience - the study of higher cognitive functions that exist in humans, and their underlying neural basis. Cognitive neuroscience draws from linguistics, psychology, and cognitive science. Cognitive neuroscientists can take two broad directions: behavioral/experimental or computational/modeling, the aim being to understand the nature of cognition from a neural point of view.
- Computational neuroscience - attempting to understand how brains compute, using computers to simulate and model brain functions, and applying techniques from mathematics, physics, and other computational fields to study brain function.
- Cultural neuroscience - looks at how beliefs, practices, and cultural values are shaped by and shape the brain, minds, and genes over different periods.
- Developmental neuroscience - looks at how the nervous system develops on a cellular basis; what underlying mechanisms exist in neural development.
- Molecular neuroscience - the study of the role of individual molecules in the nervous system.
- Neuroengineering - using engineering techniques to better understand, replace, repair, or improve neural systems.
- Neuroimaging - a branch of medical imaging that concentrates on the brain. Neuroimaging is used to diagnose disease and assess the health of the brain. It can also be useful in the study of the brain, how it works, and how different activities affect the brain.
- Neuroinformatics - integrates data across all areas of neuroscience, to help understand the brain and treat diseases. Neuroinformatics involves acquiring data, sharing, publishing, and storing information, analysis, modeling, and simulation.
- Neurolinguistics - studying what neural mechanisms in the brain control the acquisition, comprehension, and utterance of language.
- Neurophysiology - looks at the relationship of the brain and its functions, and the sum of the body's parts and how they interrelate. The study of how the nervous system functions, typically using physiological techniques, such as stimulation with electrodes, light-sensitive channels, or ion- or voltage-sensitive dyes.
- Paleoneurology - the study of ancient brains using fossils.
- Social neuroscience - this is an interdisciplinary field dedicated to understanding how biological systems implement social processes and behavior. Social neuroscience gathers biological concepts and methods to inform and refine theories of social behavior. It uses social and behavioral concepts and data to refine neural organization and function theories.
- Systems neuroscience - follows the pathways of data flow within the CNS (central nervous system) and tries to define the kinds of processing going on there. It uses that information to explain behavioral functions.
To investigate recent developments in the fields of neuroscience, visit the Medical News Today neuroscience section.