What is Medical Neuroscience?

Stephanie Partridge

Medical neuroscience is a highly specialized area of the medical field that focuses on the brain and nervous system. It is most often thought of as a science that studies brain function, but its range extends far beyond that area. In actuality, medical neuroscience encompasses all aspects of the nervous system, nerves, and nerve cells, both healthy and diseased. It includes the chemistry, pathology, physiology, and anatomy of nerve cells as well as the psychological and behavioral elements that rely on the roles of the nervous system. Many of the best known professionals in this field are medical doctors and surgeons, but academics, researchers, and drug manufacturers are also really important. The brain and nervous system are very complex, and as a result getting started in this field often requires a lot of training as well as a commitment to almost constant education, formal and informal, in order to stay current.

Medical imaging is helping improve understanding and treatment of brain diseases.
Medical imaging is helping improve understanding and treatment of brain diseases.

Clinical Disciplines

There are several clinical disciplines that fall within the somewhat broad parameters of the field. Neurology, neurobiology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry are three of the most common disciplines, but things like cognitive neuroscience and neuropathology also have great significance. People with clinical expertise in these disciplines are usually active medical practitioners who help diagnose and treat people with brain chemistry disorders or nervous system problems. They tend to work in specialized clinics or hospitals.

Many people in the field of neuroscience spend their careers in academia.
Many people in the field of neuroscience spend their careers in academia.

Academic and Research Sector

Expertise in this field doesn’t necessarily lead to a career in medicine, however, at least not where direct patient care is concerned. Neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and neurobiologists often spend the bulk of their time researching the origins of neurological problems, and may also spend time trying to formulate cures or treatments. Much of this work is experimental and tends to happen in labs and research centers. Patients may be seen in the context of test cases, but person-to-person interaction isn’t usually the goal behind this sort of work. To some degree, though, research and publication on advances in the field is one of the ways actual practitioners stay current and are able to deliver good care, so the two subsets can be seen to go hand in hand.

Neuroscientists may spend time formulating cures for brain conditions.
Neuroscientists may spend time formulating cures for brain conditions.

There are also a number of academic outlets for this sort of knowledge. Most of these involve teaching, typically at the university level and in graduate seminars, as well as publication in scholarly journals. Most people who choose the academic route have already had distinguished careers in neuroscience that they either continue, often teaching on the side as an adjunct or guest lecturer, or leave entirely, whether through retirement or outright career shift. The expertise of these professionals is often seen as essential to training up the next generation of leaders in the field.

Medical neuroscience specializes in the study of the brain.
Medical neuroscience specializes in the study of the brain.

Broad Importance

One of the main reasons that this field is so important is because the brain is the hub for all activity within the body. Operating on electrical impulses, the brain is very powerful and has great influence over the body. The nervous system controls all involuntary functions within the body, including breathing, keeping the heart beating, and digestion. Additionally, it controls every movement, every thought, and every sensation that the body experiences. Understanding how these processes work helps experts keep patients healthy, and can also alert them to the small signs that something is going wrong. In many cases, early diagnosis can mean the difference between a long and functional life and one that is hindered by disability or diminished function.

Required Training and Education

The educational requirements for work in this field typically vary depending on the precise discipline being entered into. Doctors must usually attend medical school, including residencies and internships in neuroscience; surgeons must typically also complete additional time studying both general and specialized surgical procedures. The total post-secondary training time for these sorts of careers can be anywhere from 8 to 15 years.

People who are more interested in the research side don’t usually have to complete medical training, though it’s usually advantageous. Many universities offer degrees in fields like neurobiology, and pharmacy schools sometimes also provide training “tracks” or specialization programs for people with an interest in the brain and nervous system. The field is broad enough that there’s usually a lot of flexibility when it comes to formal training, but also technical enough that a lot of schooling is almost always essential.

Many of the top professionals in medical neuroscience are doctors or surgeons.
Many of the top professionals in medical neuroscience are doctors or surgeons.

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Discussion Comments

@FeistyFox2: Good point!

The phenomenon of sympathetic pregnancies encompasses both the psychological and physiological disciplines of neuroscience.

Psychologically speaking, experts believe that Couvade syndrome may be caused (or at least exacerbated) by an overall anxiety about a partner’s pregnancy — or more specifically, a completely natural apprehension about being a father. Studies have shown that sympathetic postpardum depression in men is the result of “social bonding” with their partner.

Physiologically speaking, Couvade syndrome is thought to be caused by the production of prolactin, a protein active in both men and women. Studies have shown that levels of prolactin are highest in men in the weeks prior to their partner’s birth.

Studies have also shown that paternal prolactin is associated with Couvade syndrome because of “powerful emotional responses to infant stimuli.”


“When the brain is exposed to something, real or imagined, it evokes a physiological reaction within the body.”

In fact, the brain is so powerful — and mysterious — that men have been known to experience “sympathetic pregnancies.” The relatively rare condition is known as Couvade syndrome, and can include symptoms such as morning sickness, fluctuating hormones, and even labor pains and/ or postpartum depression.

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