The Introductory Guide to Neuroscience

Neuroscience Definition

Neuroscience is the study of the chemical, biological and anatomical processes that influence the brain’s behavior and function. Neuroscience combines a variety of interdisciplinary fields, including medicine, chemistry, psychology, molecular biology, anatomy, physics and other life sciences to understand the nervous system.

Neuroscience Diagram depicting the process of conducting theoretical analysis.

What is Neuroscience?

Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system and how nerves affect behavior using a broad scope of scientific approaches. Neuroscience, also called neural science, seeks to understand how the nervous system functions, matures and maintains itself—both in healthy individuals and in individuals with brain, psychiatric or neurodevelopmental disorders. Neuroscience primarily focuses on the structure and development of the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and the spinal cord.

For that reason, neuroscience research often focuses on how the brain influences cognitive behavior and function. Those who study neuroscience are called neuroscientists. A neuroscientist differs from a neuroscience specialist in that “neuroscience specialist” usually refers to physicians who specialize in treating brain and spine conditions, while neuroscientists are researchers who specialize in the study of the nervous system.

TED Talk Neuroscience

Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain

Neuroscience is our primary source of information about the brain and the brain’s impact on behavior and cognitive functions. With an increasing number of tools, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, electroencephalogram (EEG) machines and 3D imaging technology, neuroscience helps decode the complex workings of the brain.

Why Neuroscience Matters

Because neuroscience affects such a wide range of human functions, understanding the brain plays a critical role in treating and preventing many neurological conditions.

Neuroscience has helped advance our understanding of various neurological disorders and injuries, including:

  • ADHD
  • Addiction
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Stroke
  • Brain tumors
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Down syndrome
  • Epilepsy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Schizophrenia
  • Sciatica
  • Sleep disorders

Neuroscience News

Here are some recent neuroscience news and breakthroughs you should know.

  • Scientists discovered the brain’s navigation system. In 2005, neuroscientists discovered “grid” cells in the entorhinal cortex which play a major role in how animals keep track of their positions in space—a fundamental issue for survival.
    • Neuroscience labs embrace optogenetics. The 2005 discovery of optogenetics, a technique for activating neurons with light, provided neuroscience labs with a detailed way to study the role selected neurons play in a disease or behavior.
    • Cognitive behavior therapy gains scientific backing. A 2012 meta-analysis of 100+ studies found a strong evidence base for cognitive behavior therapy. CBT was found to be particularly supportive for anxiety disorders, somatoform disorders, bulimia, anger control problems and general stress.
    • Scientists opened the blood-brain barrier. Neuroscientists successfully penetrated the blood-brain barrier, a network of cells that protects the brain from the rest of the body. While the barrier prevents harmful toxins in the bloodstream from entering brain tissue, it also makes it difficult to deliver medicine to the brain. The blood-brain barrier was opened in humans for the first time in 2015.
    • Artificial intelligence powers neural implants. Neural implants can alter the electrical activity of the brain, helping restore function in areas damaged by brain damage or neurological disorders. In 2017, researchers prototyped a nanoscale, AI-powered neural implant that can strengthen weak synapses in patients with brain disorders.
    • Brain-computer interfaces advance neurological rehabilitation. Quadriplegic man Rodrigo Hübner Mendes became the first person to drive an Formula 1 (F1) race car using only his brainwaves in 2017. This was possible by combining brain-computer interface (BCI) and non-invasive EEG technology. Hübner Mendes wore an EMOTIV EPOC+ EEG headset while an on-board computer translated his thoughts into commands to drive the car.

    How Can Neuroscience Contribute to Explaining Behavior?

    Neuroscience Research

    Neuroscience research is a rapidly-growing discipline, as advances in any of the major branches of neuroscience contribute to research in the field as a whole. Neuroscience research areas range widely in topic, but primarily cover how the nervous system’s function and structure relates to disease, behavior and cognitive processes.

    Neuroscience for Kids Video

    Answering the Big Questions in Neuroscience

    While the nervous system plays a role in an incredible number of behavioral functions, some of the most interesting topics in neuroscience today include neuroscience and sleep, neuroscience and human motivation, social neuroscience and neuroeconomics. Exploring those topics sheds light on how neuroscience explains behavior on a broader scale.

    Neuroscience and Sleep

    Sleep has traditionally been studied under the categories of medicine and psychology. As neuroscience grew into an established interdisciplinary field in the late 1900s, neuroscience research began turning its attention to sleep. Since animals require a certain amount of sleep to function—at the risk of their health—sleep is a critical neural behavior. The neuroscience of sleep seeks to explore what constitutes sleep, how sleep is triggered, what happens in the brain during sleep and how sleep disorders are caused and treated.

    One type of EEG testing is specifically devoted to assess sleep disorders. A “polysomnography,” or EEG sleep study, is an overnight procedure that measures body activity (heart rate, breathing and oxygen levels) while an EEG scan is performed.

    Neuroscience and Human Motivation

    The study of neuroscience and human motivation examines the neurobiological components of normal and abnormal motivation. You may think of motivation as an attitude or characteristic that describes high-achieving individuals. In fact, motivation is a neurological behavior that involves biological and psychological processes.

    At the biological level, animals are motivated to meet survival needs like food, shelter and water. At the psychological level, a number of factors can contribute to whether an animal maintains a motivational drive to meet their basic needs. For example, experiencing neurological disorders such as depression and schizophrenia or diseases like addiction disrupt motivation.

    Neuroscience Topics for Further Reading

    Meditation Neuroscience

    Meditation has been the subject of hundreds of neuroscience studies. Because meditation is strongly associated with stress and anxiety reduction, neuroscientists are interested in its effects on brain activity. Many studies use brain activity recording techniques like EEG and neuroimaging like fMRI to observe how meditation may affect changes in brain activity.

    For example, one early study used EEG to record the brain activity of experienced Zen meditators. Researchers observed the appearance of Alpha waves, an increase in the amplitude of the Alpha waves, a decrease of Alpha waves and the appearance of Theta waves. These changes in EEG states were parallel with the subject’s practiced meditative process. Alpha activity is associated with a relaxed, calm and lucid state of mind, and Theta activity in adults is associated with drowsiness.

    Neuroscience of Depression

    Various structures within the brain are believed to play a role in depression. On a biological level, neuroscientists have identified that certain genes can influence how susceptible an individual is to low moods and how they respond to medication.

    Researchers have used neuroimaging and tomography techniques to understand how depression affects regions and functions. fMRI scans can measure changes in regions of the brain as they respond to stimuli, and single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and positron emission tomography (PET) can measure the density and distribution of neurotransmitters.

    In the depressed brain, communication between neurons may be irregular—for example, a neuroreceptor may respond ineffectively to a neurotransmitter. It’s important to note depression may not be due to low levels of neurotransmitters alone. As researchers explore the neuroscience of depression deeper, they provide a better understanding of the many possible causes of depression, including trauma, genetics, stress and medical conditions.

    Neuroscience of Addiction

    Societal stigmas have characterized addiction as a result of moral flaws or weak willpower. Research into the neuroscience of addiction over the last 30 years has demonstrated that addiction is in fact a chronic brain disorder. Addiction disrupts the system of neurocircuits (called neurocircuitry) involved in motivation and reward. The neuroscience of addiction studies the neurological processes underlying the biological, social and cultural factors that contribute to how vulnerable a person is to addiction and substance abuse.

    Neuroscience of Addiction Video

    Neuroscience of Music

    The neuroscience of music seeks to understand the neural mechanisms involved in the cognitive processes of listening, performing, composing and reading music.

    Because music affects us in such an emotional and physical way, there have been many independent studies conducted around the neuroscience of music. For example, researchers have studied how music contributes to memory recall in subjects who suffer from Dementia or Alzheimer’s.

    The neuroscience of music includes consumer research, too. One experiment recorded EEG data from three famous Norwegian artists while they listened to music from a variety of genres. The recorded EEG data was analyzed using an algorithm to detect whether famous artists liked the music they were listening to. Watch the video below to find out if Lars Vaular, Ole Paus and Margaret Berger are their own favorite musicians.

    “Understanding Our Appreciation of Music” Video

    Neuroscience of Memory

    Memory involves complex cognitive and neural processes, and scientists are still investigating the neuroscience of memory. However, we have a fundamental understanding of how experiences are encoded in the brain. New memories are formed when synapses are altered or rerouted. The hippocampus and parahippocampal region convert short-term events into long-term memories. The amygdala integrates emotions into our lived experiences.

    Neuroscience of Consciousness

    Consciousness influences human behavior, so neuroscience provides a lens for explaining consciousness. The study of the neuroscience of consciousness primarily seeks to answer what neural properties explain when a state is conscious or not (general consciousness) and which neural properties identify the basis of a conscious state (specific consciousness).

    Neuroscience Fields

    Because neuroscience is an interdisciplinary study, modern research and developments can be categorized into many different neuroscience fields.

    List of neuroscience fields:

    In the following sections, we’ll explain the differences between neuroscience and psychology and neuroscience vs. neurology, describe the major neuroscience fields (cognitive and behavioral neuroscience) and define other emerging neuroscience fields.

    • Affective Neuroscience (Emotion Neuroscience)
    • Behavioral Neuroscience
    • Cellular Neuroscience
    • Clinical Neuroscience
    • Cognitive Neuroscience
    • Computational Neuroscience
    • Cultural Neuroscience
    • Developmental Cognitive
    • Neuroscience
    • Developmental Neuroscience
    • Evolutionary Neuroscience
    • Educational Neuroscience
    • Molecular Neuroscience
    • Medical Neuroscience
    • Neural engineering
    • Neuroanatomy
    • Neurochemistry
    • Neuroeconomics
    • Neuroethics
    • Neuroethology
    • Neurogastronomy
    • Neurogenetics
    • Neuroimaging
    • Neuroimmunology
    • Neuroinformatics
    • Neurolinguistics
    • Neuromarketing
    • Neurophysics
    • Neurophysiology
    • Neuropsychology
    • Paleoneurobiology
    • Social Neuroscience
    • Systems Neuroscience
    • Theoretical Neuroscience
    • Translational Neuroscience

    What’s the difference between Neuroscience and Psychology?

    How is neuroscience related to psychology? Let’s revisit the neuroscience definition. Neuroscience is the study of the chemical, biological and anatomical processes that influence the brain’s behavior and function, while psychology is the abstract study of human behavior. You can study psychology and learn about human nature, but without scientific knowledge of how the brain functions, you may not be getting the full picture. Scientists are still discovering how the brain is involved in psychological processes such as personality, behavior and emotion.

    Neurology vs Neuroscience

    Neuroscience concerns the study of the nervous system, while neurology concerns the medical treatment of it. Neurology is the area of medicine that specializes in the central, peripheral and autonomic nervous system. Neurologists are physicians who diagnose and treat neural diseases and disorders.

    Cognitive Neuroscience

    Cognitive neuroscience is a subfield of neuroscience that studies the biological processes that underlie cognition, especially in regards to the neural connections. The purpose of cognitive neuroscience is to determine how the brain achieves the functions it performs. Cognitive neuroscience is considered a branch of both psychology and neuroscience (cognitive science vs neuroscience) because it combines the biological sciences with the behavioral sciences, such as psychiatry and psychology. The technologies employed in neuroscience research, particularly neuroimaging, provide insight into behavioral observations when behavioral data is insufficient.

    Cognitive Neuroscience Example

    Examining cognitive neuroscience experiments is helpful to understand cognitive neuroscience at work. A recent prize-winning experiment explored the role of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of satisfaction, in decision making. Humans need to be able to make decisions that benefit them to survive. When we make a decision that results in a reward, the activity level of dopamine neurons increases—and eventually this response happens even in anticipation of a reward.

    This biological process is why we seek greater and greater rewards, such as promotions or degrees, as a higher number of rewards is linked with a higher chance of survival. Decision-making is an example of a biological process that influences cognition (cognitive neuroscience example).

    Behavioral Neuroscience

    Behavioral neuroscience uncovers how the brain influences behavior by applying biology to the study of physiology, genetics and developmental mechanisms. As the name suggests, this subfield is the link between neuroscience and behavior. Behavioral neuroscience focuses on nerve cells, neurotransmitters and neural circuits to investigate the biological processes that underlie both normal and abnormal behavior (biological neuroscience).

    Many influential behavioral neuroscience experiments have drawn critical conclusions using non-human subjects, often monkeys, rats or mice, leading to the assumption that human and non-human organisms share biological and behavioral similarities. Behavioral neuroscience is also called biological psychology, biopsychology or psychobiology.

    Computational Neuroscience

    Computational neuroscience uses theoretical analysis, computer simulations and mathematical models to understand neural function from the molecular and cellular level to the network level to the level of cognition and behavior.

    Social Neuroscience

    Social neuroscience studies and implements biological concepts to understand social processes and behavior. Because humans are a social species, we create social units such as families, communities, neighborhood. Social neuroscience predicates that these social units are in place because their associated social behaviors help humans survive and reproduce.

    Clinical Neuroscience

    Clinical neuroscience studies the biological mechanisms that underlie neural disorders and diseases and seeks to develop ways of diagnosing and treating those disorders. Clinical neuroscience is also called medical neuroscience.

    Educational Neuroscience

    Educational neuroscience explores the connection between biological processes and education by investigating the neural processes involved in learning, reading, performing calculations and educational-related neurodevelopmental disorders such as dyslexia and ADHD.

    Systems Neuroscience

    Systems neuroscience encompesses the study of how nerve cells behave in neural pathways, neural circuits and neural networks. Systems neuroscience seeks to understand the brain’s structure and function at both the molecular and cellular level (for example, how neural circuits analyze sensory information and execute specific functions) and the cognitive and behavioral levels (how language and memory works).

    Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience

    Developmental cognitive neuroscience examines psychological processes and their neurological bases in the developing mind—including how biological and environmental changes affect the brain as children age.

    Developmental Neuroscience

    Developmental neuroscience provides insight into the processes that generate and influence the nervous system, with a focus on its cellular and molecular development primarily during the prenatal period.

    Theoretical Neuroscience

    The term “theoretical neuroscience” is often used interchangeably with “computational neuroscience” (the use of theoretical analysis, computer simulations and mathematical models to understand neural function from the molecular and cellular level to the network level to the level of cognition and behavior). The subtle difference between theoretical and computational neuroscience is that theoretical neuroscience emphasizes proposing theoretical approaches to study the brain than proposing mathematical models and data collection.

    Translational Neuroscience

    Translational neuroscience aims to develop clinical applications, solutions and therapies for neural disorders. These applications include brain computer interfaces and auditory and retinal implants.

    Molecular Neuroscience

    Molecular neuroscience applies molecular biology and molecular genetics to the study of the nervous system. This subfield examines how neurons respond to molecular signals, how axons form connectivity patterns and the molecular basis of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change itself. Molecular and cellular neuroscience both seek to understand how neurons develop and how genetic changes affect biological functions. Cellular neuroscience studies neurons at the cellular level: how neurons work together, how neurons influence each other and the various types and functions of neurons.

    Emotion Neuroscience

    Emotion neuroscience, often called affective neuroscience, is the study of the neural mechanisms of emotion. Emotion is thought to be directly related to structures in the limbic system in the center of the brain. Affective neuroscience combines neuroscience with psychology. For example, it might explore the overlap in neural and mental mechanisms between emotional and non-emotional processes—which, until recently, researchers considered to be separate cognitive processes.

    A Brief History of Neuroscience

    Some of the earliest contributions to neuroscience were made by philosophers. Until 400-300 B.C., the heart was viewed as the source of consciousness. Hippocrates and Plato challenged that notion by advocating for the brain as an actor in sensation and intelligence.

    In the early 1800s, French physiologist Jean Pierre Flourens pioneered experimental ablation (surgical brain lesioning) and became the first to prove the mind was located in the brain, not the heart. Flourens observed the effects caused by removing different parts of the nervous system.

    The physician Luigi Galvani discovered animal electricity in the late 1700s, becoming one of the first to study the electric signals from neurons and muscles. A number of scientists in the late 19th century paved the way to neuroscience’s understanding of the brain’s electrical activity: Emil du Bois-Reymond demonstrated the electrical nature of the nerve signal, Hermann von Helmholtz measured the speed of the nerve signal and Richard Caton and Adolf Beck observed electrical activity in the cerebral hemispheres of rabbits, monkeys and dogs.

    Camillo Golgi developed a staining method (now known as the Golgi Stain) for visualizing nervous tissue under light microscope. This technique was used by Santiago Ramón y Cajal and led to the formation of the neuron theory, the concept that the nervous system is made up of individual cells. Golgi and Ramón y Cajal later won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906.

    Paul Broca, John Hughlings Jackson and Carl Wernicke all helped contribute to neuroscience’s “localization of function” hypothesis, which suggests that certain parts of the brain are responsible for certain functions, in the late 1800s.

    Neuroscience was formally established as an academic discipline in the 1950s and 60s. David Rioch, Francis O. Schmitt, James L. McGaugh and Stephen Kuffler were among the first to integrate neuroscience into biomedical research institutions and establish neuroscience research programs and departments.

    This increasing interest led to the formation of several neuroscience organizations in the late 1960s that are still around today. These include the International Brain Research Organization, the International Society for Neurochemistry, the European Brain and Behaviour Society and the Society for Neuroscience.

    Most recently, a number of applied disciplines have emerged from neuroscience, such as neuromarketing, neuroeconomics, neuroeducation, neuroethics and neurolaw.

    Who Discovered Neuroscience?

    Santiago Ramón y Cajal is called the “father of neuroscience” because of his pioneering investigations into the brain’s microscopic structure. Ramón y Cajal provided evidence for the neuron theory, which is considered the foundation of modern neuroscience. He demonstrated that nerve cells are individual and contiguous (in close proximity), not continuous, and discovered the axonal growth cone (the extension of a developing neurite seeking its synaptic target).

    EEG Neuroscience

    Neuroscience research often uses neuroimaging techniques like electroencephalography (EEG) to analyze the brain. EEG is an electrophysiological process that records the brain’s electrical activity. Neuroscientists can analyze EEG data to understand the cognitive processes that underlie human behavior. For example, cognitive neuroscientists have used EEG to monitor how brain activity changes in response to different stimuli (EEG cognitive neuroscience).

    Because EEG provides a scientific way to study an individual’s feedback and behavior, EEG is also a valuable solution for consumer insights. The use of neurotechnologies like EEG to study consumer reactions is called consumer neuroscience or neuromarketing (neuroscience marketing).

    Clinical EEG and Neuroscience

    Clinical EEG and neuroscience uses EEG to diagnose and monitor patients with epilepsy, stroke or other disorders where other technologies cannot be used due to specific circumstances (for example, patient with metal fragments or plates in the head can’t undergo MRI studies). EEG is also used in rehabilitation or restoration of function for subjects suffering from paralysis or motor disorders through its use as a brain-computer interface. Clinical EEG can also be used to assess sleep disorders.

    Benefits of EEG for Neuroscience Research

    • Compared to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), EEG has very high temporal resolution, meaning it can pick up the rapid reactions of the brain that happen at the speed of milliseconds. That allows it to sync very accurately what happens in the brain and in the environment.
    • EEG data is collected non-invasively. By comparison, electrocortiography requires neurosurgery to place electrodes directly on the brain’s surface.
    • Compared to behavioral testing methods, EEG can detect covert processing (processing that does not require a response). It can also be used in subjects who are unable to make a motor response.
    • EEG sleep analysis can indicate significant aspects of the timing of brain maturation.
    • There is no physical danger around an EEG machine. fRMI and MRI are powerful magnets which is prohibitive to patients with metallic aids or implants, such as pacemakers.

    Does EMOTIV offer Neuroscience products?

    EMOTIV offers a number of neuroscience products for academic neuroscience research, consumer research, cognitive performance, neuromarketing and brain-controlled technology applications. EMOTIV’s neuroscience solutions include neuroscience software, BCI software and EEG hardware technology.

    EmotivPro is a neuroscience software solution for neuroscience research and education, enabling users to analyze EEG data, display the EEG recordings in real-time and mark events. The EmotivBCI is a brain-computer interface software that can be used to directly implement a BCI within a computer. EMOTIV’s additional neuroscience tools include brain visualization software BrainViz and brain performance tracking software MyEmotiv.

    EMOTIV’s neuroscience products for brain measuring technology are considered the most cost-effective and credible mobile and wireless EEG headsets on the market. For neuroscience research and commercial use, the award-winning EMOTIV EPOC+ headset provides professional-grade brain data. The EMOTIV EPOC FLEX cap offers high density coverage and moveable electroencephalogram sensors optimal for neuroscience research.