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Drawing by Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1899) of neurons in the pigeon cerebellum



Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. Traditionally, neuroscience has been seen as a branch of biology. However, it is currently an interdisciplinary science that collaborates with other fields such as chemistry, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, medicine and allied disciplines, philosophy, physics, and psychology. The term neurobiology is usually used interchangeably with the term neuroscience, although the former refers specifically to the biology of the nervous system, whereas the latter refers to the entire science of the nervous system.


The scope of neuroscience has broadened to include different approaches used to study the molecular, cellular, developmental, structural, functional, evolutionary, computational, and medical aspects of the nervous system. The techniques used by neuroscientists have also expanded enormously, from molecular and cellular studies of individual nerve cells to imaging of sensory and motor tasks in the brain. Recent theoretical advances in neuroscience have also been aided by the study of neural networks.


Given the increasing number of scientists who study the nervous system, several prominent neuroscience organizations have been formed to provide a forum to all neuroscientists and educators. For example, the International Brain Research Organization was founded in 1960, the International Society for Neurochemistry in 1963, the European Brain and Behaviour Society in 1968, and the Society for Neuroscience in 1969.


Illustration from Gray’s Anatomy (1918) of a lateral view of the human brain, featuring the hippocampus among other neuroanatomical features



The study of the nervous system dates back to ancient Egypt. Evidence of trepanation, the surgical practice of either drilling or scraping a hole into the skull with the purpose of curing headaches or mental disorders or relieving cranial pressure, being performed on patients dates back to Neolithic times and has been found in various cultures throughout the world. Manuscripts dating back to 1700 BCE indicated that the Egyptians had some knowledge about symptoms of brain damage.


Early views on the function of the brain regarded it to be a “cranial stuffing” of sorts. In Egypt, from the late Middle Kingdom onwards, the brain was regularly removed in preparation for mummification. It was believed at the time that the heart was the seat of intelligence. According to Herodotus, the first step of mummification was to “take a crooked piece of iron, and with it draw out the brain through the nostrils, thus getting rid of a portion, while the skull is cleared of the rest by rinsing with drugs.”


The view that the heart was the source of consciousness was not challenged until the time of the Greek physician Hippocrates. He believed that the brain was not only involved with sensation -since most specialized organs (e.g., eyes, ears, tongue) are located in the head near the brain – but was also the seat of intelligence. Plato also speculated that the brain was the seat of the rational part of the soul. Aristotle, however, believed the heart was the center of intelligence and that the brain regulated the amount of heat from the heart. This view was generally accepted until the Roman physician Galen, a follower of Hippocrates and physician to Roman gladiators, observed that his patients lost their mental faculties when they had sustained damage to their brains.


Abulcasis, Averroes, Avenzoar, and Maimonides, active in the Medieval Muslim world, described a number of medical problems related to the brain. In Renaissance Europe, Vesalius (1514–1564) and Rene Descartes (1596–1650) also made several contributions to neuroscience.


The Golgi stain first allowed for the visualization of individual neurons.



Studies of the brain became more sophisticated after the invention of the microscope and the development of a staining procedure by Camillo Golgi during the late 1890s. The procedure used a silver chromate salt to reveal the intricate structures of individual neurons. His technique was used by Santiago Ramon y Cajal and led to the formation of the neuron doctrine, the hypothesis that the functional unit of the brain is the neuron. Golgi and Ramon y Cajal shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906 for their extensive observations, descriptions, and categorizations of neurons throughout the brain. The neuron doctrine was supported by experiments following Luigi Galvani’s pioneering work in the electrical excitability of muscles and neurons. In the late 19th century, Emil du Bois-Reymond, Johannes Peter Muller, and Hermann von Helmholtz demonstrated that neurons were electrically excitable and that their activity predictably affected the electrical state of adjacent neurons.


In parallel with this research, work with brain-damaged patients by Paul Broca suggested that certain regions of the brain were responsible for certain functions. At the time, Broca’s findings were seen as a confirmation of Franz Joseph Gall’s theory that language was localized and that certain psychological functions were localized in specific areas of the cerebral cortex. The localization of function hypothesis was supported by observations of epileptic patients conducted by John Hughlings Jackson, who correctly inferred the organization of the motor cortex by watching the progression of seizures through the body. Carl Wernicke further developed the theory of the specialization of specific brain structures in language comprehension and production. Modern research still uses the Brodmann cerebral cytoarchitectonic map (referring to study of cell structure) anatomical definitions from this era in continuing to show that distinct areas of the cortex are activated in the execution of specific tasks.


In 1952, Alan Lloyd Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley presented a mathematical model for transmission of electrical signals in neurons of the giant axon of a squid, action potentials, and how they are initiated and propagated, known as the Hodgkin-Huxley model. In 1961-2, Richard FitzHugh and J. Nagumo simplified Hodgkin-Huxley, in what is called the FitzHugh-Nagumo model. In 1962, Bernard Katz modeled neurotransmission across the space between neurons known as synapses. In 1981 Catherine Morris and Harold Lecar combined these models in the Morris-Lecar model. In 1984, J. L. Hindmarsh and R.M. Rose further modeled neurotransmission.


Beginning in 1966, Eric Kandel and collaborators examined biochemical changes in neurons associated with learning and memory storage.


Parasagittal MRI of the head of a patient with benign familial macrocephaly




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