Our Beautiful Minds: Branches, Tools and Hopes in Neuroscience

Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, a complex network of nerves and specialized cells called neurons which signal in the brain and between body parts. It bridges multiple disciplines including mathematics, computer science, philosophy, and medicine. 

The brain is a highly complex organ, with over 86 billion neurons responsible for our conscious experience – jogging in parks, remembering our last holiday, laughing with loved ones … As it commands all human functions, it has startled, fascinated and despaired scientists. Indeed, despite the modern advances many questions remain unanswered and led to the emergence of various branches:

  • Cognitive and Behavioural Neuroscience aims to understand how psychological functions are initiated by the neural activity in the brain: thoughts, emotions, learning, decision making, memories. 
  • Computational Neuroscience relies on mathematical tools and computer simulations to model neuronal networks and systems.  
  • Developmental Neuroscience studies how cells and molecules operate within a developing organism. 
  • Molecular Neuroscience uses molecular biology, molecular genetics and protein chemistry to gain insight on the biology of the nervous system.
  • Translational and Clinical Neuroscience focuses on how neuroscience findings are associated to disease progression and clinical manifestations.

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On top of specialising their research through different branches, neuroscientists rely on various tools:

  • Electroencephalography (EEG) is a non-invasive technique where electrodes are placed on the outside of an individual’s scalp. It records the electrical activity of the brain as neurons communicate through electrical impulses. For example, Professor Michael Anderson from Cambridge University uses EEG to investigate the cognitive and neural mechanisms by which people suppress distracting and unwanted memories. This tool is also routinely used for stroke, sleep disorders and brain tumour diagnosis. 
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses magnetic field and radio waves to generate images by measuring the blood flow in the brain. Essentially, it allows scientists to take snapshots of the brain in real time. It is widely used in neurodegenerative disease diagnosis, where nerve cells loose function over time. For example, Alzheimer patients (memory loss, impaired speech and language, disorientation) MRI scans display reduced sizes in different areas of the brain compared to unaffected individuals. 
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) also creates brain images but relies on the injection of radioactive molecules “radiotracers”. Once in the bloodstream, the radiotracers circulate in the body and reach the brain. A PET scanner then detects the final localization of these molecules. Rest assured, the radiotracers are low dosed with no known long-term adverse effects in the 5 decades it had been used for. PET is commonly used to detect brain tumours by radiolabeling glucose as cancer cells absorb glucose at a higher rate compared to normal cells. Functionally, the individual lies down on a table that slides vertically out of a donut-shaped machine. Surrounding and rotating the individual are a x-ray tube and detector to follow the radiotracer in the body.

Despite the multiple branches and technical tools for brain and nervous system studies, many mysteries remain to be solved. The increase of age-related cognitive diseases, the limits of animal models and decreased funding are true hurdles. However, new publications and findings such as the “microbiota-gut-brain axis” emerge, constituting hope. 

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