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What is a Neuroscience Degree?
Neuroscientists study the structure and function of the human brain and nervous system and how they affect behavior. The field of neuroscience borrows principles from biology, biochemistry, physiology, psychology, immunology, physics, mathematics, and computer science. Degree programs in neuroscience, therefore, reflect this multidisciplinary nature. At the graduate level, programs include the study of neurological disorders, the impact that injury has on the brain, and approaches to neurological therapy and rehabilitation.
Bachelor’s Degree in Neuroscience – Four Year Duration
The bachelor’s program provides students with fundamental knowledge gained through courses in foundational neuroscience; basic biology, chemistry, and physics; basic math, computer science, and statistics; and framework research methods. Some schools offer a five-year accelerated combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in neuroscience.
Here is an overview of a typical four-year neuroscience bachelor’s curriculum:
• The Brain – an introduction to how the brain works; neuroanatomy, sensory and motor systems, language and learning
• The Neuron – how neurons (single brain cells) work, neural coding, neural circuit structure and function
• General Biology with Laboratory – life from atoms, molecules, and organelles (subcellular structures that have one or more specific jobs to perform in the cell) to the cellular levels of organization; cell structure and function, energetics and metabolism, the gene, molecular genetics, and evolution; scientific method and experimentation through the study of microbes, plants, and animals
• General Chemistry with Laboratory – atomic structure; chemical reactions; heat changes; electronic structure of atoms; molecular geometry; liquid, solid, gas, and solution chemistry
• Organic Chemistry with Laboratory – hydrocarbons, compounds, alcohols, acids, and their derivatives
• General Physics with Laboratory – motion and forces, Newton’s Laws, momentum, energy, gravitation, fluids, properties of matter, and thermodynamics
• Calculus – fundamental theorem of integral calculus, the study of rates of change
• Computational Methods in Brain and behavioral Science – how computers are used in neuroscience research, basic programming skills, how to analyze and report scientific data using software used in neuroscience
• Basic Statistics – use of statistical software to analyze real data and to present and study concepts
• Cognitive Neuroscience with Laboratory – exploration of complex cognitive behaviors, including attention, object recognition, memory, cognitive control, social cognition, and language; research methods in cognitive neuroscience; design of behavioral paradigms, clinical approaches, electroencephalography (EEG), neuroimaging (MRI), and neuromodulation (the alteration or modulation of nerve activity by delivering electrical or pharmaceutical agents directly to a target area)
• Behavioral Neuroscience with Laboratory – the neural mechanisms associated with natural behaviors, including communication, learning, memory, sleep, feeding, and stress response
• Research Methods and Professional Skills – professional skills and career paths in the fields of neuroscience and experimental psychology; scientific writing and grant writing; finding a job
• Cell Biology with Laboratory – the structure and function of eukaryotic cells (cells that have a nuclear membrane that surrounds the nucleus)
• Genetics with Laboratory – patterns of gene transmission; gene structure, function, interactions, and mutation; chromosomes; biochemical genetics; population genetics
• Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology – the structure, organization, and function of the human brain and how it produces thoughts, feelings, movements, perceptions, language, and memories; normal brain functioning and neurological disorders
• The Evolution of Behavior – exploration of animal and human behavior from the perspective of ecology and evolution; topics covered include aggression, language, sex differences, intelligence, development, learning, and instinct
• Independent Research in Neuroscience – capstone project
Master’s Degree in Neuroscience – Two Year Duration
Many master’s programs in neuroscience offer both a thesis-based degree with a requirement of a laboratory research project, and a non-thesis degree program requiring more extensive coursework and the writing of a review of neuroscience literature. Students who choose to continue graduate training after earning their master’s degree can have their credits applied to the doctoral program.
Doctoral Degree in Neuroscience – Five Year Duration
The doctoral program in neuroscience involves essentially the same coursework as the master’s program, but has a more intensive research component. After defending their dissertation, doctoral graduates often go on to postdoctoral work at research institutions.
Both the master’s and doctoral programs offer broad exposure to cellular, molecular, behavioral, developmental, and systems neuroscience, with emphasis on disease, injury, and therapeutics. Rigorous research training takes place through interactions with faculty, participation in scientific meetings, and training in scientific writing, teaching, formulation of hypotheses, and experimental design.
These are examples of possible areas of research and concentrations:
Spinal Cord and Brain Injury
• Neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections to compensate for injury and disease
• Axon regeneration – an axon is the long threadlike part of a nerve cell along which impulses are conducted from the cell body to other cells
• Cellular transplantation – examples: stem cells, peripheral nerve bridges, fibroblasts
• Central nervous system response to injury, including neuroinflammation
• Autonomic dysfunction – develops when the nerves of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) are damaged; the ANS is a control system that regulates bodily functions like heart rate, digestion, and urination
• Neuropathic pain
• Neuroprotective strategies
• Robotics and brain-machine interface
• Computational neuroscience and modeling
• Recovery of motor, sensory, and autonomic functions
• Microtubule-based therapies for augmenting nerve regeneration
• How axons grow, branch, and navigate during development
• How dendrites become different from axons – a dendrite is a short branched extension of a nerve cell along which impulses received from other cells are transmitted to the cell body
• How neurons migrate from their sites of origin to their final destinations in the developing brain
• Alzheimer’s disease
• Hereditary spastic paraplegia
• Autism spectrum disorders
• Gulf War illness
• Multiple sclerosis
• Parkinson’s disease
• Spinal cord injury
• Traumatic brain injury
Systems and Behavioral Neurobiology (the biological basis of behavior)
• Ingestive behavior – feeding and drinking
• Substance abuse
• Regulation of executive function – mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and multitask
• Learning and memory
• Psychostimulant drugs and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
• Stress, anxiety, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
• Sleep and arousal
• Locomotion and neural networks
• Traumatic brain injury
• Parkinson’s disease
Neuroengineering (in combination with therapeutic approaches to brain and spinal cord injury and rehabilitation)
• Computational modeling of reflex systems and pattern generator controls of breathing and locomotion
• Development of spinal cord motor prostheses
• Development of cortical motor / sensory prostheses, brain-machine interfaces, and neurorobotics
Degrees Similar to Neuroscience
Simply stated, biomedical engineering uses engineering to solve health and medical problems. For example, a biomedical engineer might look for chemical signals in the body that warn of a particular disease or condition.
Chemistry deals with identifying the substances that make up matter. Degree programs in chemistry focus on investigating these substances: their properties; how they interact, combine, and change; and how scientists can use chemical processes to form new substances.
The field of computer science is focused on computer systems and how humans interact with them. Courses cover mathematics for computer science, artificial intelligence, data structures and algorithms, and introduction to program design.
Linguistics explores the nature of language variations and dialects, how language evolves over time, how it is processed and stored in the human brain, and how it is acquired. It is the scientific study of language and communication, both within a single language and across language groups. Its primary sub-areas are phonetics – the study of the production, acoustics, and hearing of speech sounds; phonology – the patterning of sounds; morphology – the structure of words; syntax – the structure of sentences; semantics – meaning; and pragmatics – language in context.
Degree programs in molecular biology teach the composition, structure, and interactions of cellular molecules like nucleic acids and proteins that are essential to cell function.
Pharmacologists study how drugs and medicines work so they can be used in the right way. The work naturally involves an understanding of chemical and biological interactions.
Philosophy encourages the asking of big questions and the formulation of arguments to attempt to answer them. Who are we? Why are we here? What do we believe? Why do we believe it? What is right and wrong in life? What is true and false? What is real and unreal? Philosophy is concerned with the nature of existence and knowledge.
Psychobiology is the interaction between biological systems and behavior. It is concerned with how what we think and what we feel combine with biological events. Research in the field covers topics such as how psychological stressors can impact the brain and behavior. An example is how an exam or job interview can cause heart palpitations.
Degree programs in robotics technology prepare students to work with engineers who design robots and robotic systems than can perform duties that humans are either unable or prefer not to perform.
Skills You'll Learn
Graduates of neuroscience programs gain these transferrable skills through their course of study:
• Abstract reasoning
• Academic writing and presentation
• Attention to detail
• Awareness of ethical issues
• Communication and interpersonal skills
• Experiment design
• Laboratory skills
• Leadership and teamwork
• Observation, investigation, and critical thinking
• Organization and time management
• Research and data analysis and interpretation
• Summarizing vast amounts of information
• Use of statistical tests in data analysis
What Can You Do with a Neuroscience Degree?
Because neuroscience combines aspects of many disciplines – from chemistry, medicine, and linguistics to mathematics, computer science, and engineering – graduates of the field find themselves working in a surprisingly wide array of areas. Many choose to go to medical school and become a physician or surgeon.
Below are the most common occupational categories in neuroscience. Some roles require further education and/or additional specialized training.
Research and Teaching
• Clinical / Medical
• Academic / University
• Pharmaceutical / Drug Development
Healthcare and Social Services
• Neuropsychology / Psychology
• Neuroimaging / Brain Imaging
• Neuropsychiatry / Psychiatry
• Occupational Therapy
• Physical Therapy
• Speech-Language Pathology
• Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counseling
• Regulatory Affairs
• Research Administration
Writing and Publishing
• Scientific Journalist / Blogger / Editor
• Creative writing about the brain – for children or adults
• Developer of toys for brain development
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