Neuroscience, the study of the nervous system, advances the understanding of human thought, emotion, and behavior. Neuroscientists use tools ranging from computers to special dyes to examine molecules, nerve cells, networks, brain systems, and behavior. From these studies, they learn how the nervous system develops and functions normally and what goes wrong in neurological disorders.
Only in recent decades has neuroscience become a recognized discipline. It is now a unified field that integrates biology, chemistry, and physics with studies of structure, physiology, and behavior, including human emotional and cognitive functions.
What is the mind? Why do people feel emotions? What are the underlying causes of neurological and psychiatric disorders? These are among the many mysteries being unraveled by neuroscientists.
Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system—including the brain, the spinal cord, and networks of sensory nerve cells, or neurons, throughout the body. Humans contain roughly 100 billion neurons, the functional units of the nervous system. Neurons communicate with each other by sending electrical signals long distances and then releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters, which cross synapses—small gaps between neurons.
Critical components of the nervous system are molecules, neurons, and the processes within and between cells. These are organized into large neural networks and systems controlling functions such as vision, hearing, learning, breathing, and, ultimately, all of human behavior. Much of what is known about the mechanisms underlying these functions was first discovered through animal studies and then confirmed in humans.
Through their research, neuroscientists work to:
- describe the human brain and how it functions normally;
- determine how the nervous system develops, matures, and maintains itself through life; and
- find ways to prevent or cure many devastating neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Neuroscience research includes genes and other molecules that are the basis for the nervous system, individual neurons, and ensembles of neurons that make up systems and behavior.
At the molecular level, neuroscientists use tools, such as antibodies and gene probes, to isolate and identify proteins and other molecules responsible for brain function. Molecular biologists isolate and describe the genes that produce the proteins important to neuron function.
Neuroanatomists study the structure and organization of the nervous system. With special dyes, they detect specific neurotransmitters and mark neurons and synapses with specific characteristics and functions.
Developmental neuroscientists study how the brain grows and changes. They define chemicals and processes neurons use to seek out and connect with other neurons and maintain connections.
Cognitive neuroscientists study functions, such as perception and memory, in animals by using behavioral methods and other neuroscience techniques. In humans, they use non-invasive brain scans—such as positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging—to uncover routes of neural processing that occur during language, problem solving, and other tasks.
Behavioral neuroscientists study the processes underlying behavior in humans and in animals. Their tools include microelectrodes, which measure electrical activity of neurons, and brain scans, which show parts of the brain that are active during activities such as seeing, speaking, or remembering.
Advanced computer systems are enabling neuroscientists to devise models of neurons and their connections in the brain—how humans perform complex tasks. This work may lead to computer programs that understand speech and respond to spoken questions.
Clinical neuroscientists—psychiatrists, neurologists, and other medical specialists—use basic research findings to develop diagnostic methods and ways to prevent and treat neurological disorders that affect millions of people.
Neuroscience research is pushing the envelope on one of science’s last and most daunting frontiers—the brain. This work holds great promise for understanding and treating stroke, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other illnesses (edited from the Society for Neuroscience website).
Currently at UT, in the College of Natural Sciences, neuroscience is represented by the neurobiology option in the School of Biological Sciences.
Within the school, the Bachelor of Science degree is offered with over ten different tracks. Each of these tracks is a specialization with a small selection of electives needed to complete the track. The purpose of this framework is to allow lateralization within the college and maintain retention as students’ interests change. It effectively trains students as broadly trained biologists with a limited specialization in neurobiology within the context of biological science. However, as discussed above, the relatively new and rapidly growing discipline of neuroscience has an inherently interdisciplinary breath that reaches beyond biological scientists. Contemporary neuroscience includes researchers with backgrounds and professional degrees in biological sciences, behavioral sciences, physical sciences, clinical sciences, and engineering, as illustrated by the diverse backgrounds of the faculty of the section of neurobiology.
Multidisciplinary training in neuroscience has come to be expected for faculties and for admission of first-rate graduate students. Undergraduate neuroscience degrees are becoming common among top universities. The proposed Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience degree will meet the goal of a rigorous, interdisciplinary program in neuroscience, which provides a foundation in the related scientific and mathematical disciplines and a three-course specialization in one of these areas. Distinctive features of the program are an emphasis on solid quantitative, statistical, mathematical, and computational approaches and on hands-on lab experience.
To remain competitive with peer institutions, this degree is offered such that students will leave the University with a far greater repertoire of neuroscience courses than currently offered and with a much stronger foundation in science and practical laboratory experiences. Students exiting from UT with the degree will be better prepared for graduate and professional work in the neurosciences.
Students are expected to enter the gateway sequence as sophomores. This sequence will still allow for the lateralization that is built into the current School of Biological Sciences, but will also promote recruitment from other departments and colleges at the sophomore and junior level. Lastly, the degree will increase retention in the college for those students who select the major due to the dedicated course load.
The degree has 107-111 structured hours, including University and college requirements. This will allow migration into the College of Natural Sciences and within the college with no increase in residence time at the University.
The separate degree is not intended to supplant the current neurobiology (option IV) degree, but rather to augment the program that the college and school have in place. Students wishing to continue graduate work in neuroscience will be better served, and the University will be better represented.