|Or when the valley's white and flushed with snow
||[Apr. 2nd, 2006|09:25 pm]
|||||Spancil Hill : Shanon||]|
Scary title, isn’t it? That’s my senior project as a Neuroscience Major. I had entered college looking forward to a major in Applied Psychology, and maybe taking Neuroscience as a minor. That all changed after I really got to know the subject well. There were just too many fascinating things to learn, and so much left unlearned and unexplored in this relatively new field of science. I heard the pioneer in myself calling, and I listened. But of all my good experience, one negative memory stands out – the pretentiousness of one of my colleagues when I proposed to write an article to the school paper talking about Neuroscience in general. “Neuroscience isn’t a public health issue,” she sneered dismissively. “Besides, a layman wouldn’t understand.” I was shocked. I, once, had been a layman, and I had become (In my opinion) an accelerated Neuroscience student looking forward to a successful researching career. To prove my friend wrong, I set out to write this essay, and explain as accurately and understandably as possible the complex field of neuroscience.
First, a look at the term itself: ‘neuro’ refers to the brain and all functions dealing with the brain; science of course means the field of study. Therefore one may conclude that neuroscience is the study of the structure and function of the nervous system [Cardiff University Research, www.cardiff.ac.uk]. In general, there are two keys to the study of neuroscience. The first is the neuronal circuits within the brain. These are the set paths which signals traveling through the brain take. By studying this, scientist can figure out where signals can be redirected or even stopped. The second is what we call ‘synaptic connections’. Synapses are the junctions between brain cells. Each synapses will interpret a signal differently under different conditions. For example, a signal coming at a certain time during the day may be interpreted as, “I need to go eat.” At another time during the day, it could mean, “I should eat soon, but not now”; and slight variations such as that. [Cardiff University Research, www.cardiff.ac.uk]
In the medical field, the study of neuroscience is either used to actually repair the brain or to use the brain to repair afflictions in the body. When the practice is used to remedy difficulties in brain structure, it is referred to as NNR (the ‘cool’ term for Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair). The medical practices associated with this are mainly but definitely not limited to: stem cell research, to find new cells for brain repair [Dobkin, Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair]; cell transplantation, the process of taking cells from one part of the brain and placing them in a different part of the brain to act in place of lost or damaged cells; and neuroprotection, which are treatments which help protect damaged cells and encourage the growth of newer cells [Cardiff University Research, www.cardiff.ac.uk]. When it is used to help physical disabilities, the common procedure is to try and stimulate a certain part of the brain in an effort to restrict or extend the motion of one part of the body. This is usually achieved by the injection of substances, neurostimulation via electricity, and robotic devices. [Dobkin, Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair].
Now, to further understand the field of Neuroscience, one needs to have at least a basic understanding of brain anatomy. Most people are taught this in health class, but who ever pays attention to that class anyways? I know I certainly never did. We’ll start with the brainstem. This is the lower extension of the brain, which connects with the spinal cord. It’s the pathway for all signals sent to the brain. That alone makes it very important, but the brainstem is even more crucial than you think. It controls all of our base survival functions, such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion. Part of the brainstem is a small section called the Medella Oblongata (I love that word, don’t you? My favorite neuroscience word to say. Just rolls off the tongue and never fails to make your audience laugh at its absurdity). This controls involuntary reflexes like gagging, choking, and of our favorite, vomiting. [Johnson, About Brain Injury : A Guide to Brain Anatomy] As I am both a college student and a Neuro-Nerd, I’ve explained this many times to my friends after they’ve had a long night of drinking and are experiencing the aftereffects.
For all of us who complain of having two left feet or boast of the ability to be able to trip on perfectly flat surfaces, we owe this to our Cerebellum and Posterior Cortex. The Cerebellum is located in the back of the brain, and the Posterior Cortex in the Frontal Lobe. Both deal with coordination, balance, and general movement. The Frontal Lobe, obviously, is in the front part of the brain. Generally it is involved in planning, problem solving, attention, behavior, and emotions. In addition to the Posterior Cortex, it also consists of a Prefrontal Cortex. This deals mainly with cognitive functions and personality [Johnson, About Brain Injury : A Guide to Brain Anatomy].
In the back of the brain, there’s a lobe called the Occipital Lobe. This processes simplistic visual information like shapes and colors. The Parietal Lobe deals with the more complex information, like the judgment of texture, weight, and size. It is divided into two separate parts, creatively named the right and left lobes. The Right Lobe is responsible for viso-spacial evaluation (a scientific term for depth perception), and finding your way through familiar places. Written and spoken languages are handled by the Left Lobe. The Parietal Lobe is also partially responsible for direction the five senses and sensory input. However, most of the responsibility in terms of the five senses falls upon the Temporal Lobes. The Temporal Lobes are divided into two separate lobes, right and left (beginning to see a pattern yet?) which are located around the ears. Their jobs are to distinguish sounds and smells from one another and to sort information as it gets processed. Thanks to these two, the thousands of millions of sensory stimulants that go on in everyday life don’t lead to a brain meltdown. Interesting fact : the right lobe of the Temporal Lobe deals with visual information, and the left with verbal [Johnson, About Brain Injury : A Guide to Brain Anatomy]. So the next time you’re being told directions over the phone and don’t have a pen on you, switch the receiver to your left ear – you’ll remember the information better.
Lastly, there is (this is another fun neuroscience word) the Amygdala. This part of our brain’s anatomy controls emotions and our physical reactions to emotions. For example, you can tell when someone is anxious when they breathe harder, their hearts beat faster, they sweat, their pupils dilate, etc. That is the Amygdala at work. Most information retention, or memory, also occurs here, hence the common analogy of the Amygdala being “like a computer”[Janson, That’s Living Too, the Brain and Anxiety]. My professors abuse that expression so much; you almost begin to image a miniature Dell inside your head.
This is all a basic understanding of brain anatomy. What I love most about this subject, however, is that these facts aren’t definite or unshakeable. Studies have been made which give evidence that the Frontal and Temporal lobes are involved in feelings of happiness. The experimentation was made upon an epileptic woman in Japan. The scientists decided to try and ‘map’ her brain by giving selected areas small shocks of electricity and carefully monitoring her reaction. While she was hit in the frontal lobe, the woman said she felt happy. When levels of stimulation were increased, the woman would smile or even laugh. She even noted that she could hear a song from a TV show she watched as a child [Neuroscience for Kids, The Temporal Lobe : Laughing Matter]. Owing to this study, neuroscientists consider the possibility that in addition to being associated with happy feelings, the Frontal and Temporal Lobes might be storage for the memories which are associated with happiness as well. In the medical field, this could prove to be a discovery which would lead to new treatments for depression. But before a drug that stimulates the Frontal and/or Temporal Lobe could be created, the side effects would have to be carefully weighed, the possibility that it may simply revive a happy memory repetitively would have to be considered, and that is farther down the medical road than I as a Neuroscience Major student am permitted to go. Still, imagine what it would be like to see a new drug come out which does use neurostimulation to help victims of chronic depression, and to think to yourself, “ I did research on that!” Right there, that is my goal.
But as undoubtedly inspiring as that little tangent was, I am not writing this about the many medical miracles of neuroscience. That would take far too much time and paper, neither of which I am in abundance of, and anyways I do not believe any mortal would have the patience to read the entire thing even if I did write it. Therefore, I’ve narrowed my focus to three common interests: Alzheimer’s, Autism, and Stroke.
The percentage of people with Alzheimer’s, the frightening memory-loss disease, is sadly on the rise. In response to these growing rates of dementia, neurological studies are constantly striving to find a cure. Most data for these studies is accumulated from autopsies [Lewis, Neuroscience 2005 : Encouragement for Alzheimer's Diagnosis and Treatment]. While this does supply an invaluable amount of information, scientists would rather study Alzheimer's while the patient is still living, and therefore learn about its many stages and its path of progression. The problem with this request is that at the time of diagnosis, nearly a third of the neurons involved in the process are already damaged past repair