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What is Neurobiology?

Early neurobiologists studied the properties of single neurons.
MRIs have advanced the science of neurobiology.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 20 October 2014
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Neurobiology is a complex science that studies the brain and nervous systems of humans and other animals. Neurobiology can study the development of the brain in the developing animal or the neurological origin of disease, for example. This field comprises many different methods of study.

Some neurobiology focuses on the molecular structures of the brain and nervous system. Larger complete systems, like the function and structure of the cerebral cortex, may be studied. Scientists can look at biological factors that impact learning or mood, or they may study how early genetic material develops into various areas of the brain.

Early breakthroughs in modern neurobiology date back to the 1960s. Such studies helped explain processes and developmental aspects of the brain. Early neurobiologists studied the properties of single neurons and amine neurotransmitters, evaluated the role of peptides in neurotransmission, and traced the development of the fetal brain. Perhaps the most significant study of this era was the groundbreaking work on visual processing, for which David Hubel and Torston Wiesel won the 1981 Nobel Prize.

The field of neurobiology changed as DNA began to be studied and understood. Neurobiologists can now study the way genes affect the structures of the brain. As the Human Genome Project grew in scope, neurobiology leaped to the challenge of understanding the precise relationship between specific genes and neurological responses.

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Harvard University, in 2001, hailed the opening of its Brain Imaging Center. With the technology of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), neurobiology sought to explore the relationship between brain activity and mental occurrences or disorders. These studies have proven successful in helping to diagnose difficult cases of schizophrenia, epilepsy, anxiety, and other disorders. In addition, these studies have yielded specific pictures of how the brain reacts to distressing or engaging stimuli.

The US National Institute on Drug Abuse employs neurobiology to understand the brain’s function in causing, supporting, and overcoming addiction. More specifically, this work examines how taking addictive drugs regulates certain genes and proteins. Scanning genes for predisposing addictive factors is also in use, and has identified some genetic factors related to addiction. One very important aspect of these studies is the attempt to increase understanding of why and how medications like anti-depressants work or fail to work.

Most medication proscribed for psychological diseases is chosen based on probable theories. For example, those with manic depression are frequently prescribed medications intended to reduce seizures. The benefits of these medications, and the way in which they act on the brain, are not clearly understood and require more study. The neurobiology work employed at the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, and at science labs, schools, and hospitals, may ultimately increase our understanding of this field.

Compared to other sciences, neurobiology can still be considered in its infancy. Continued applications and studies in neurobiology may well hold the key to many poorly understood aspects of learning and development, and may give us greater power toward fighting diseases of the nervous system.

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