A Beginner’s Guide to Neuroscience
Recent advancement in biosensor technology, wireless data transmission, and signal processing algorithms have resulted in core breakthroughs in human neuroscience, requiring massive revisions of what we to-date believed to know about the structure, function, and development of the nervous system and the brain as well as its impact on behavioral and cognitive functions.
On their quest for scientific advancement, neuroscientists focus on different layers of the nervous system, ranging from molecular levels to inter-neural communication (synaptic signal transmission), large-scale network synchronization and brain-body interactions – and some neuroscientists even analyze the way multiple brains and bodies interact!
Neuroscience is an amalgamate of medical, evolutionary and computational disciplines, fostering a deeper understanding of how the more than the approximately 85 billion nerve cells in the human brain are born, how they grow and interconnect to form one of the most complex structures in the universe – the nervous system.
Nervous System and the Brain
Importantly, neuroscientists do not limit their endeavor for deeper insights to the brain but cover all layers of the nervous system.
Basically establishing the body’s electrical wiring, its complex conglomerate of cells and nerves transmits data back and forth between the brain, spinal cord, organs, and limbs.
Brain and spinal cord are considered the central part of the nervous system, since they integrate all incoming information from sensors and effectors, and modulate the activity of the body.
By contrast, the peripheral nervous system comprises somatic and autonomous systems, responsible for voluntary control of skeletal muscles as well as involuntary regulation of bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiration, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal.
“The human brain – a spongy, three-pound mass of tissue – is the most complex living structure in the known universe.” (Society for Neuroscience)
Basic Brain Facts
While our nervous system controls all aspects of our bodily functions, the scientist’s fascination of the brain might be caused by its impact on learning, memory, and emotion. Without our brain, we would not have thoughts, dreams, hopes or imagination.
Some basic facts establish the common ground of neuroscientific research: The average adult brain weights around 1.4 kg and consists of four primary parts: the brain stem (to/from the spinal cord), the cerebellum, the limbic lobe and the cerebrum (also called neo-cortex since it only developed rather lately on evolutionary scale).
The cerebrum is further subdivided into four major cortices: occipital (red; vision), parietal (yellow; feeling of agency, spatial features), temporal (green; speech and navigation, object identity), and frontal (blue; cognitive control).
The brain comprises nerve cells (neurons) and supporting cells (glia). While it has been a common belief that only neurons could be considered the building blocks of nervous data exchange, neuroscientists recently uncovered that also glia cells, in fact, do affect certain physiological processes like breathing and synaptic connectivity.
Branches of Neuroscience
The most common branches are cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. Cognitive neuroscience specifies the scientific study of biological substrates underlying cognition and mental processes, and addresses questions such as how psychological/cognitive functions are reflected by neural circuits in the brain.
Typical data collection methods employed by cognitive neuroscientists are functional neuroimaging (fMRI, PET), electroencephalography (EEG), cognitive genomics, behavioral genetics and lesion studies.
In contrast, behavioral neuroscience (also known as biopsychology) by contrast, addresses the impact of the nervous system on attention, perception, motivation, performance, learning, and memory and their manifestations in human behavior. Studies in behavioral neuroscience focus on the interaction of brain and behavior in real or simulated environments.
Neuroscience comprises many more fields (e.g., clinical, computational or social neuroscience), which we will cover in more detail in one of the upcoming blog posts.
Neuroscience Core Concepts
According to the Society for Neuroscience, the following “Neuroscience Core Concepts” are the essential principles of this fascinating discipline:
- The brain is the body’s most complex organ.
- Neurons communicate using both electrical and chemical signals.
- Genetically determined circuits are the foundation of the nervous system.
- Life experiences change the nervous system.
- Intelligence arises as the brain reasons, plans, and solves problems.
- The brain makes it possible to communicate knowledge through language.
- The human brain endows us with a natural curiosity to understand how the world works.
- Fundamental discoveries promote healthy living and treatment of disease.
To sum up, neuroscience tackles all questions dealing with the understanding of learning and memory and helps to find ways to optimize human intelligence, for example by identifying improved learning and recall strategies.
Neuroscientists all over the world are constantly striving towards an increased understanding and knowledge of brain structure and function in conjunction with more reliable and valid research methods, which will enable healthcare and medical sectors to develop new techniques and treatments to attenuate, counteract or even cure global diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
While an increasing amount of neuroscience studies is conducted and cutting-edge research papers are published, we’re still at the very beginning of fully uncovering the magnitude of what the human brain is actually capable of.
At iMotions, we’re providing the methodological framework for collecting multi-dimensional behavioral and cognitive biosignals in complex neuroscientific paradigms in order to decipher the fascinating complexity of the human nervous system and allow you to answer the research questions of today and tomorrow.