What Is Neuroscience?

4 Questions On Neuroscience

One of the largest and important muscles we have in our bodies is the brain. It is by far the most “complex organ” in the human body and is made up of more than “100 billion nerves that communicate in trillions of connections called synapses” (WebMD, 2014). Sounds like pretty mind blowing stuff eh?

Well, it is. Neuroscience is a branch of “life sciences” which studies all things brain-related, including the nervous system and its influence on how we think. Furthermore, neuroscience looks at what happens to the nervous system when people have neurological, psychiatric and neurodevelopment disorders. 

However, there does seem to be some confusion on the internet about the field of neuroscience, the people that study it and the brain itself. So we decided it was time to speak to a real neuroscientist and ask the questions we are all itching to know the answers to.

We spoke to Sally Sheldon, our very own in-house neuroscientist to find out what’s what in the world of brains

This is what she had to say:

Q: So Sally, what does a neuroscientist do?

A: Broadly speaking, neuroscientists study the nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord and nerve cells in the body. Neuroscience is a very diverse discipline – there are lots of different areas of neuroscience that we can specialise in. To name a few: 

  • Molecular and cellular neuroscience (the role of specific molecules, genes, and proteins in the nervous system)
  • Behavioural neuroscience (the study of how the brain affects behaviour)
  • Cognitive neuroscience (how the brain forms and controls thoughts, and the neural factors that underlie those processes)
  • Developmental neuroscience (how the nervous system grows and changes over the lifespan; helping us better understand developmental disorders).

Neuroscientists generally carry out research based at universities, research institutes, or in private industry; some treat patients as medically-qualified neurosurgeons or neurologists. 

Q: Would you say neuroplasticity has limits? 

A: At the moment, we don’t know the exact limits of neuroplasticity when it comes to learning and cognition, but our brains are much more plastic than we had once thought! We know that lots of things can positively benefit neuroplasticity – mental stimulation, physical exercise, meditation, though our brains become somewhat less plastic as we age, we can still continue to learn and thereby stimulate the formation of new connections in the brain. 

In terms of the role of neuroplasticity in recovering from physical damage via events such as a stroke or traumatic brain injury, this is where neuroplasticity can be much more limited, and the possibility/extent of recovery depends on many factors, including the size of the area of the brain that has been damaged, the affected person’s age and the treatments available to them. 

Q: Is it true that we don’t use 100% of our brains?

A: The idea that we only use a small percentage of our brains has been propagated by fiction, such as films like ‘Lucy’ and ‘Limitless’. In reality, there is no ‘dead space’ in the brain which isn’t used or which doesn’t serve some sort of function. Perhaps we do not use 100% of our brains all the time, but this is simply because it’s not necessary to do so. Certain brain networks and regions are responsible for certain actions, thoughts, or other functions, which are not active when not required at that moment. However, MRI evidence shows that we do in fact use nearly every part of our brain during the course of one day!

Q: What are some great achievements of neuroscience in history?

A: We’ve come a long way from Ancient Greece’s Aristotle, who believed that intelligence and consciousness reside in the heart and that the brain was simply responsible for cooling the blood. Thanks to the research of thousands of neuroscientists since then, we now know much more about the brain and its role such as: 

  • Scanning technology, e.g PET scans/MRI 
  • Diagnosing and treating certain illnesses
  • Brain mapping
  • Neurogenetics
  • Advances in therapy
  • Neural implants
  • Optogenetics 

And so much more!

Neuroscience has come pretty far from 170 B.C. when Galen hypothesised a person’s temperament and bodily functions are controlled by the brain, to the present day, where we now have MRI machines that produce pictures of our brains (Brain World, 2017). The field of neuroscience is to be thanked for a lot of what we know and understand about the brain today. With technological advancements coming in thick and fast, the future of neuroscience looks bright with technologies and companies such as Neuralink and Brain Gate developing groundbreaking medical devices to help us learn further about the brain. Who knows what we will learn next. It truly is an exciting time to be alive. 

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Sajal Azam

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