What is neuroscience?
The term "neuroscience" refers to the scientific study of the nervous system. It is composed of the words "neuron" (nerve) and "science".
The Neuroscience deals with all scientific aspects of the nervous system, including the molecular, cellular, functional and structural elements as well as the evolutionary, medical and computational aspects.
The nervous system is a collection of interconnected neurons that communicate with each other and with other cells through specialised synaptic connections. The neurons project long filaments called axons that can reach distant parts of the body and transmit signals that influence neuronal and muscular activity at their endpoints.
All elements of the nervous system are thus studied by neuroscientists, to understand how it is structured, how it works, how it is formed and how it can be changed.
Some examples of relevant areas are:
- Neuronal signal transmission and axonal networking patterns
- Neuronal development and biological function
- Formation of neuronal circuits and functional role in reflexes, perception, memory, learning and emotional response
- Cognitive neuroscience, which deals with psychological functions related to neuronal circuits
- Imaging of the brain in the diagnosis of diseases
What are neuroscience methods?
Functional magnetic resonance imaging measures neuronal activity by detecting changes in blood flow to the brain. Differences in the magnetic properties of haemoglobin are detected under a strong magnetic field in a scanner.
In positron emission tomography, radiotracers injected into the bloodstream are absorbed by the body and the gamma rays they emit are detected by the system.
In transcranial magnetic stimulation, an electromagnetic collar held on the skull generates electrical currents in the underlying brain region and modulates neuronal activity to study its functioning and connectivity.
Optogenetics is a combination of concepts from optics and genetics and is a technique that uses light to precisely modulate neurons that have been genetically engineered to express a light-sensitive molecule in animal models.
Patch-clamp recording and its representatives use a microelectrode to study the ion channel properties of a "patched" cell membrane and record the characteristics of individual neurons in the brain. The recent development of multi-electrode arrays has enabled researchers to record the activity of many neurons simultaneously.
Which disciplines belong to the neurosciences?
Neuroscience can be divided into the following overlapping areas for understanding the underlying mechanisms of the human brain:
- Behavioural / cognitive neuroscience
- cellular and molecular neuroscience
- Systems Neuroscience
- translational and clinical sciences
Neuroscientists are essentially basic researchers who usually have a PhD in neuroscience or a related field. They can then work in post-doctoral research or continue their training as a medical doctor and later specialise in neuroscience.
These often help to understand the genetic basis of many neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, and to identify strategies for cure and treatment. Neuroscientists can also be involved in research into mental disorders such as schizophrenia or behavioural disorders.