Neuroscience, the study of the nervous system, advances the understanding of human thought, emotion, and behavior. Neuroscientists use tools ranging from computers to special dyes to examine molecules, nerve cells, networks, brain systems, and behavior. From these studies, they learn how the nervous system develops and functions normally and what goes wrong in neurological disorders.
What is the mind? Why do people feel emotions? What are the underlying causes of neurological and psychiatric disorders? These are among the many mysteries being unraveled by neuroscientists.
Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system -- including the brain, the spinal cord, and networks of sensory nerve cells, or neurons, throughout the body. Humans contain roughly 100 billion neurons, the functional units of the nervous system. Neurons communicate with each other by sending electrical signals long distances and then releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters which cross synapses -- small gaps between neurons.
The nervous system consists of two main parts. The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system includes the nerves that serve the neck and arms, trunk, legs, skeletal muscles and internal organs.
Critical components of the nervous system are molecules, neurons, and the processes within and between cells. These are organized into large neural networks and systems controlling functions such as vision, hearing, learning, breathing and, ultimately, all of human behavior. Much of what is known about the mechanisms underlying these functions was first discovered through animal studies and then confirmed in humans.
Through their research, neuroscientists work to:
- Describe the human brain and how it functions normally.
- Determine how the nervous system develops, matures and maintains itself through life.
- Find ways to prevent or cure many devastating neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Only in recent decades has neuroscience become a recognized discipline. It is now a unified field that integrates biology, chemistry, and physics with studies of structure, physiology, and behavior, including human emotional and cognitive functions.
Neuroscience research includes genes and other molecules that are the basis for the nervous system, individual neurons, and ensembles of neurons that make up systems and behavior.
At the molecular level, neuroscientists use tools such as antibodies and gene probes to isolate and identify proteins and other molecules responsible for brain function. Molecular biologists isolate and describe the genes that produce the proteins important to neuron function.
Neuroanatomists study the structure and organization of the nervous system. With special dyes, they detect specific neurotransmitters, and mark neurons and synapses with specific characteristics and functions.
Developmental neuroscientists study how the brain grows and changes. They define chemicals and processes neurons use to seek out and connect with other neurons and maintain connections.
Cognitive neuroscientists study functions such as perception and memory in animals by using behavioral methods and other neuroscience techniques. In humans, they use non-invasive brain scans -- such as positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging -- to uncover routes of neural processing that occur during language, problem solving and other tasks.
Behavioral neuroscientists study the processes underlying behavior in humans and in animals. Their tools include microelectrodes, which measure electrical activity of neurons, and brain scans, which show parts of the brain that are active during activities such as seeing, speaking or remembering.
Advanced computer systems are enabling neuroscientists to devise models of neurons and their connections in the brain -- how humans perform complex tasks. This work may lead to computer programs that understand speech and respond to spoken questions.
Clinical neuroscientists — psychiatrists, neurologists and other medical specialists — use basic research findings to develop diagnostic methods and ways to prevent and treat neurological disorders that affect millions of people.
Neuroscience research is pushing the envelope on one of science's last and most daunting frontiers — the brain. This work holds great promise for understanding and treating stroke, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease and other illnesses.