Neuroscience – Learning Pathway #1

Welcome to the Neuroscience Learning Pathway. Here we aim to give you an understanding of the core concepts of Neuroscience  and Neuroscience research. Across the learning path we will cover in more detail: Brain Basics, what is the brain and how does it work; Neuroscience Research, what are the key areas of research, their limitations and future perspectives; among other topics.   

Neuroscience is a broad field that brings together knowledge, expertise and techniques from many different fields of science and technology to study the development, structure and function of the nervous system. Neuroscience liaises closely with chemistry, linguistics, engineering, psychology, computer science, medicine and more. Neuroscience investigates development and both normal and aberrant function of the nervous system. It can be split into a number of branches of study comprising molecules, neuronal cells, neuronal circuits, our behaviour, language, cognition and how our brains compute information.  

One example is in understanding the mechanisms behind diseases, for example Schizophrenia, Dementia and Autism, which all disrupt nervous system function. Research hopes to find biomarkers to develop novel diagnosis methods and/or novel therapeutic targets, such as the brain’s immune cells which have been linked to Alzheimer’s Disease through Genome Wide Association Studies (which observe genetic variants in many individuals to see if these are associated with a certain disease). Monumental advances in our understanding have been facilitated by technologies such as patch-clamp electrophysiology, PCR, genomic sequencing, optogenetics and chemo-genetics. Going forward, understanding brain plasticity (reorganisation and change of neural networks in the brain), and the functions of various lesser known cell types in the brain (e.g. glial cells) will also be critical to research in health and disease.   

Additionally, Brain-computer interfaces, which acquire and analyse brain signals and translate these into artificial outputs, are an exciting new topic in neuroscience research, being worked on by a number of start-ups such as Neuralink. They aim to replace or restore function for people with by neurological disorders. In the future, exciting applications include using brain-computer interfaces to control exoskeletons and smart homes to assist people with motor impairments including the elderly. Moreover, they might even be used to improve performance of surgeons or other medical professionals!  

Neuroscience research hopes to understand our different sleep states better and what drives alterations in these seen in neurological disorders. The principles of why we sleep are still unknown although much progress has been made in the last decade. The circadian clock, or body clock, is set by ambient light in our environment being detected by photoreceptors in our eyes and reaching our suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) in the hypothalamus area of the brain, which acts as our circadian pacemaker.  It regulates a plethora of biological functions including our sleep patterns and even cell division. On this note, we see a higher incidence of breast cancers in nurses who frequently work night shifts. Furthermore, it is possible to exploit our circadian clock to improve cancer therapy. Sleep research promises to have a great impact on medicine going forward.   

Another fascinating area is the study of the gut-brain axis, bidirectional communications between the central and enteric nervous system (the system of neurons governing the function of the gastrointestinal tract). Recent studies have demonstrated the key role of the gut microbiota in influencing these interactions and how our microbiota change in disease states such as Depression and Parkinson’s Disease. Novel therapies for neurological disorders may target the microbiota in the future.   

The future of Neuroscience in Medicine is an exciting one, with opportunities to make real impacts to patients and further our understanding of the inner workings of the body’s most complex organ.  Check out the Neuroscience tagged articles on the portal for further information on the topics covered here.   

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Posted on

21 January 2021

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