Neuroscience in a Nutshell

Neuroscience in a Nutshell

Neuroscience allows us to understand ourselves like never before. Read on to learn about the history and practice of neuroscience.

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. The brain is, of course, a central focus of neuroscience, but neuroscientific research also includes the study of other parts of the nervous system such as the spinal cord and peripheral nerves, or the nerves that extend throughout our bodies. There are many different levels at which to study the nervous system, from the microscopic study of individual neurons to the macroscopic study of the relationship between brain function and behavior.

Neuroscience is important because it provides the opportunity to improve human life in several ways. Perhaps most obvious is the use of neuroscientific findings to create treatments for diseases and disorders of the nervous system such as Parkinson’s Disease, epilepsy, and spinal cord injuries. Since the early days of brain research, neuroscientists have made amazing strides in creating tools that can greatly reduce the suffering associated with these disorders. For example, in recent years, neuroscientists have created a device that allows people with paraplegia following a spinal cord injury to operate robotic limbs with their minds (Donoghue et al., 2007). While there is still a long way to go before this technology will be easily accessible to everyone, it is nevertheless quite an impressive feat.

Another important function of neuroscience is to provide a window into who we are and how we operate. It allows us to understand our thoughts and behaviors in an objective way and helps us determine how we can best improve important psychological qualities like our mental health.It can also be seen as a way to honor and stand in awe of our complexity as life forms that evolved over billions of years from a primordial soup. Millions of years worth of chance mutations and the will to survive created the most complex system in the universe. And now, that complex system is capable of investigating itself, which is truly amazing.

Additionally, as with any field of science, the pursuit of knowledge can be beneficial in ways we might not anticipate. For example, the discovery of the X-rays, Penicillin, and the anti-malarial drug, Quinine, were all unintentionally discovered by scientists (Krock, 2001). We never know what life-altering benefits neuroscience may provide in the future.

“Call it order, call it chaos, it’s all in the brain.”
― Abhijit Naskar

History of Neuroscience

The history of neuroscience can be traced back to the beginning of Greek civilization (Crivellato & Ribatti, 2007). Questions about the seat of the soul and the basis of human thought and rationality posed by ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle represent some of the earliest neuroscientific inquiries. Many of these questions are still being explored by neuroscientists today.

There are many influential figures and notable shifts in understanding in the history of neuroscience between the 6th century B.C.E and today, but one of the most important is Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Ramón y Cajal was a Spanish neuroscientist who is commonly referred to as the father of modern neuroscience (DeFelipe, 2002). This title is principally owed to his work on visualizing the structure of the brain. Using a technique called Golgi staining, Ramón y Cajal was able to identify individual neurons and their complex networks for the first time in unprecedented detail. His work proved that the nervous system was made up of individual cells called neurons, which communicate with each other through specialized structures called synapses. 

Ramón y Cajal is also known for his contributions to our understanding of brain development and neuronal plasticity, or the brain’s ability to change its structure and function in response to learning and experience. In recognition of his contributions to neuroscience, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906, which he shared with the Italian histologist Camillo Golgi. His work continues to influence the field of neuroscience today.

In Sum

Neuroscience is a fascinating field of research that has – and will continue to – improve the quality of our lives. In addition to the medical advances it contributes to, neuroscience is a way to understand ourselves better. It is a way for the brain to know itself.

References

● Crivellato, E., & Ribatti, D. (2007). Soul, mind, brain: Greek philosophy and the birth of neuroscience. Brain research bulletin, 71(4), 327-336.

● DeFelipe, J. (2002). Sesquicentenary of the birthday of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience. TRENDS in Neurosciences, 25(9), 481-484.

● Donoghue, J. P., Nurmikko, A., Black, M., & Hochberg, L. R. (2007). Assistive technology and robotic control using motor cortex ensemble‐based neural interface systems in humans with tetraplegia. The Journal of physiology, 579(3), 603-611.

● Krock, L. (2001, February 26). Accidental Discoveries. PBS.org. Retrieved March 26, 2023, from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/accidental-discoveries