What is Neuroscience?


Neuroscience (or neurobiology) is the scientific study of the nervous system. It is a multidisciplinary science that combines physiology, anatomy, molecular biology, developmental biology, cytology, mathematical modelling, and psychology to understand the fundamental and emergent properties of neurons and neural circuits. The understanding of the biological basis of learning, memory, behaviour, perception, and consciousness has been described by Eric Kandel as the “ultimate challenge” of the biological sciences.

The scope of neuroscience has broadened over time to include different approaches used to study the nervous system at different scales and the techniques used by neuroscientists have expanded enormously, from molecular and cellular studies of individual neurons to imaging of sensory, motor and cognitive tasks in the brain.

Brief History

The earliest study of the nervous system dates to ancient Egypt. Trepanation, the surgical practice of either drilling or scraping a hole into the skull for the purpose of curing head injuries or mental disorders, or relieving cranial pressure, was first recorded during the Neolithic period. Manuscripts dating to 1700 BC indicate 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 specialised 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 centre 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, Avicenna, 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), René Descartes (1596-1650), Thomas Willis (1621-1675) and Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680) also made several contributions to neuroscience.

Luigi Galvani’s pioneering work in the late 1700s set the stage for studying the electrical excitability of muscles and neurons. In the first half of the 19th century, Jean Pierre Flourens pioneered the experimental method of carrying out localised lesions of the brain in living animals describing their effects on motricity, sensibility and behaviour. In 1843 Emil du Bois-Reymond demonstrated the electrical nature of the nerve signal, whose speed Hermann von Helmholtz proceeded to measure, and in 1875 Richard Caton found electrical phenomena in the cerebral hemispheres of rabbits and monkeys. Adolf Beck published in 1890 similar observations of spontaneous electrical activity of the brain of rabbits and dogs. 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 Ramón 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 Ramón y Cajal shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906 for their extensive observations, descriptions, and categorizations of neurons throughout the brain.

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 localised and that certain psychological functions were localised in specific areas of the cerebral cortex. The localisation of function hypothesis was supported by observations of epileptic patients conducted by John Hughlings Jackson, who correctly inferred the organisation of the motor cortex by watching the progression of seizures through the body. Carl Wernicke further developed the theory of the specialisation of specific brain structures in language comprehension and production. Modern research through neuroimaging techniques, 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.

During the 20th century, neuroscience began to be recognised as a distinct academic discipline in its own right, rather than as studies of the nervous system within other disciplines. Eric Kandel and collaborators have cited David Rioch, Francis O. Schmitt, and Stephen Kuffler as having played critical roles in establishing the field. Rioch originated the integration of basic anatomical and physiological research with clinical psychiatry at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, starting in the 1950s. During the same period, Schmitt established a neuroscience research programme within the Biology Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, bringing together biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The first freestanding neuroscience department (then called Psychobiology) was founded in 1964 at the University of California, Irvine by James L. McGaugh. This was followed by the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, which was founded in 1966 by Stephen Kuffler.

The understanding of neurons and of nervous system function became increasingly precise and molecular during the 20th century. For example, 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, which they called “action potentials”, and how they are initiated and propagated, known as the Hodgkin-Huxley model. In 1961–1962, Richard FitzHugh and J. Nagumo simplified Hodgkin-Huxley, in what is called the FitzHugh-Nagumo model. In 1962, Bernard Katz modelled neurotransmission across the space between neurons known as synapses. Beginning in 1966, Eric Kandel and collaborators examined biochemical changes in neurons associated with learning and memory storage in Aplysia. In 1981 Catherine Morris and Harold Lecar combined these models in the Morris-Lecar model. Such increasingly quantitative work gave rise to numerous biological neuron models and models of neural computation.

As a result of the increasing interest about the nervous system, several prominent neuroscience organizations have been formed to provide a forum to all neuroscientist during the 20th century. For example, the International Brain Research Organisation was founded in 1961, the International Society for Neurochemistry in 1963, the European Brain and Behaviour Society in 1968, and the Society for Neuroscience in 1969. Recently, the application of neuroscience research results has also given rise to applied disciplines as neuroeconomics, neuroeducation, neuroethics, and neurolaw.

Over time, brain research has gone through philosophical, experimental, and theoretical phases, with work on brain simulation predicted to be important in the future.

Modern Neuroscience

The scientific study of the nervous system increased significantly during the second half of the twentieth century, principally due to advances in molecular biology, electrophysiology, and computational neuroscience. This has allowed neuroscientists to study the nervous system in all its aspects: how it is structured, how it works, how it develops, how it malfunctions, and how it can be changed.

For example, it has become possible to understand, in much detail, the complex processes occurring within a single neuron. Neurons are cells specialised for communication. They are able to communicate with neurons and other cell types through specialised junctions called synapses, at which electrical or electrochemical signals can be transmitted from one cell to another. Many neurons extrude a long thin filament of axoplasm called an axon, which may extend to distant parts of the body and are capable of rapidly carrying electrical signals, influencing the activity of other neurons, muscles, or glands at their termination points. A nervous system emerges from the assemblage of neurons that are connected to each other.

The vertebrate nervous system can be split into two parts: the central nervous system (defined as the brain and spinal cord), and the peripheral nervous system. In many species – including all vertebrates – the nervous system is the most complex organ system in the body, with most of the complexity residing in the brain. The human brain alone contains around one hundred billion neurons and one hundred trillion synapses; it consists of thousands of distinguishable substructures, connected to each other in synaptic networks whose intricacies have only begun to be unravelled. At least one out of three of the approximately 20,000 genes belonging to the human genome is expressed mainly in the brain.

Due to the high degree of plasticity of the human brain, the structure of its synapses and their resulting functions change throughout life.

Making sense of the nervous system’s dynamic complexity is a formidable research challenge. Ultimately, neuroscientists would like to understand every aspect of the nervous system, including how it works, how it develops, how it malfunctions, and how it can be altered or repaired. Analysis of the nervous system is therefore performed at multiple levels, ranging from the molecular and cellular levels to the systems and cognitive levels. The specific topics that form the main foci of research change over time, driven by an ever-expanding base of knowledge and the availability of increasingly sophisticated technical methods. Improvements in technology have been the primary drivers of progress. Developments in electron microscopy, computer science, electronics, functional neuroimaging, and genetics and genomics have all been major drivers of progress.

Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience

Basic questions addressed in molecular neuroscience include the mechanisms by which neurons express and respond to molecular signals and how axons form complex connectivity patterns. At this level, tools from molecular biology and genetics are used to understand how neurons develop and how genetic changes affect biological functions. The morphology, molecular identity, and physiological characteristics of neurons and how they relate to different types of behaviour are also of considerable interest.

Questions addressed in cellular neuroscience include the mechanisms of how neurons process signals physiologically and electrochemically. These questions include how signals are processed by neurites and somas and how neurotransmitters and electrical signals are used to process information in a neuron. Neurites are thin extensions from a neuronal cell body, consisting of dendrites (specialised to receive synaptic inputs from other neurons) and axons (specialised to conduct nerve impulses called action potentials). Somas are the cell bodies of the neurons and contain the nucleus.

Another major area of cellular neuroscience is the investigation of the development of the nervous system. Questions include the patterning and regionalisation of the nervous system, neural stem cells, differentiation of neurons and glia (neurogenesis and gliogenesis), neuronal migration, axonal and dendritic development, trophic interactions, and synapse formation.

Computational neurogenetic modelling is concerned with the development of dynamic neuronal models for modelling brain functions with respect to genes and dynamic interactions between genes.

Neural Circuits and Systems

Questions in systems neuroscience include how neural circuits are formed and used anatomically and physiologically to produce functions such as reflexes, multisensory integration, motor coordination, circadian rhythms, emotional responses, learning, and memory. In other words, they address how these neural circuits function in large-scale brain networks, and the mechanisms through which behaviours are generated. For example, systems level analysis addresses questions concerning specific sensory and motor modalities: how does vision work? How do songbirds learn new songs and bats localize with ultrasound? How does the somatosensory system process tactile information? The related fields of neuroethology and neuropsychology address the question of how neural substrates underlie specific animal and human behaviours. Neuroendocrinology and psychoneuroimmunology examine interactions between the nervous system and the endocrine and immune systems, respectively. Despite many advancements, the way that networks of neurons perform complex cognitive processes and behaviours is still poorly understood.

Cognitive and Behavioural Neuroscience

Cognitive neuroscience addresses the questions of how psychological functions are produced by neural circuitry. The emergence of powerful new measurement techniques such as neuroimaging (e.g. fMRI, PET, SPECT), EEG, MEG, electrophysiology, optogenetics and human genetic analysis combined with sophisticated experimental techniques from cognitive psychology allows neuroscientists and psychologists to address abstract questions such as how cognition and emotion are mapped to specific neural substrates. Although many studies still hold a reductionist stance looking for the neurobiological basis of cognitive phenomena, recent research shows that there is an interesting interplay between neuroscientific findings and conceptual research, soliciting and integrating both perspectives. For example, neuroscience research on empathy solicited an interesting interdisciplinary debate involving philosophy, psychology and psychopathology. Moreover, the neuroscientific identification of multiple memory systems related to different brain areas has challenged the idea of memory as a literal reproduction of the past, supporting a view of memory as a generative, constructive and dynamic process.

Neuroscience is also allied with the social and behavioural sciences as well as nascent interdisciplinary fields such as neuroeconomics, decision theory, social neuroscience, and neuromarketing to address complex questions about interactions of the brain with its environment. A study into consumer responses for example uses EEG to investigate neural correlates associated with narrative transportation into stories about energy efficiency.

Computational Neuroscience

Questions in computational neuroscience can span a wide range of levels of traditional analysis, such as development, structure, and cognitive functions of the brain. Research in this field utilises mathematical models, theoretical analysis, and computer simulation to describe and verify biologically plausible neurons and nervous systems. For example, biological neuron models are mathematical descriptions of spiking neurons which can be used to describe both the behaviour of single neurons as well as the dynamics of neural networks. Computational neuroscience is often referred to as theoretical neuroscience.

Nanoparticles in medicine are versatile in treating neurological disorders showing promising results in mediating drug transport across the blood brain barrier. Implementing nanoparticles in antiepileptic drugs enhances their medical efficacy by increasing bioavailability in the bloodstream, as well as offering a measure of control in release time concentration. Although nanoparticles can assist therapeutic drugs by adjusting physical properties to achieve desirable effects, inadvertent increases in toxicity often occur in preliminary drug trials. Furthermore, production of nanomedicine for drug trials is economically consuming, hindering progress in their implementation. Computational models in nanoneuroscience provide alternatives to study the efficacy of nanotechnology-based medicines in neurological disorders while mitigating potential side effects and development costs.

Nanomaterials often operate at length scales between classical and quantum regimes. Due to the associated uncertainties at the length scales that nanomaterials operate, it is difficult to predict their behaviour prior to in vivo studies. Classically, the physical processes which occur throughout neurons are analogous to electrical circuits. Designers focus on such analogies and model brain activity as a neural circuit. Success in computational modelling of neurons have led to the development of stereochemical models that accurately predict acetylcholine receptor-based synapses operating at microsecond time scales.

Ultrafine nanoneedles for cellular manipulations are thinner than the smallest single walled carbon nanotubes. Computational quantum chemistry is used to design ultrafine nanomaterials with highly symmetrical structures to optimise geometry, reactivity and stability.

Behaviour of nanomaterials are dominated by long ranged non-bonding interactions. Electrochemical processes that occur throughout the brain generate an electric field which can inadvertently affect the behaviour of some nanomaterials. Molecular dynamics simulations can mitigate the development phase of nanomaterials as well as prevent neural toxicity of nanomaterials following in vivo clinical trials. Testing nanomaterials using molecular dynamics optimizes nano characteristics for therapeutic purposes by testing different environment conditions, nanomaterial shape fabrications, nanomaterial surface properties, etc without the need for in vivo experimentation. Flexibility in molecular dynamic simulations allows medical practitioners to personalise treatment. Nanoparticle related data from translational nanoinformatics links neurological patient specific data to predict treatment response.


The visualization of neuronal activity is of key importance in the study of neurology. Nano-imaging tools with nanoscale resolution help in these areas. These optical imaging tools are PALM and STORM which helps visualise nanoscale objects within cells. Pampaloni states that, so far, these imaging tools revealed the dynamic behaviour and organisation of the actin cytoskeleton inside the cells, which will assist in understanding how neurons probe their involvement during neuronal outgrowth and in response to injury, and how they differentiate axonal processes and characterisation of receptor clustering and stoichiometry at the plasma inside the synapses, which are critical for understanding how synapses respond to changes in neuronal activity. These past works focused on devices for stimulation or inhibition of neural activity, but the crucial aspect is the ability for the device to simultaneously monitor neural activity. The major aspect that is to be improved in the nano imaging tools is the effective collection of the light as a major problem is that biological tissue are dispersive media that do not allow a straightforward propagation and control of light. These devices use nanoneedle and nanowire (NWs) for probing and stimulation.

NWs are artificial nano- or micro-sized “needles” that can provide high-fidelity electrophysiological recordings if used as microscopic electrodes for neuronal recordings. NWs are an attractive as they are highly functional structures that offer unique electronic properties that are affected by biological/chemical species adsorbed on their surface; mostly the conductivity. This conductivity variance depending on chemical species present allows enhanced sensing performances. NWs are also able to act as non-invasive and highly local probes. These versatility of NWs makes it optimal for interfacing with neurons due to the fact that the contact length along the axon (or the dendrite projection crossing a NW) is just about 20 nm.

Neuroscience and Medicine

Neurology, psychiatry, neurosurgery, psychosurgery, anesthesiology and pain medicine, neuropathology, neuroradiology, ophthalmology, otolaryngology, clinical neurophysiology, addiction medicine, and sleep medicine are some medical specialties that specifically address the diseases of the nervous system. These terms also refer to clinical disciplines involving diagnosis and treatment of these diseases.

Neurology works with diseases of the central and peripheral nervous systems, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and stroke, and their medical treatment. Psychiatry focuses on affective, behavioural, cognitive, and perceptual disorders. Anaesthesiology focuses on perception of pain, and pharmacologic alteration of consciousness. Neuropathology focuses upon the classification and underlying pathogenic mechanisms of central and peripheral nervous system and muscle diseases, with an emphasis on morphologic, microscopic, and chemically observable alterations. Neurosurgery and psychosurgery work primarily with surgical treatment of diseases of the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Translational Research

Recently, the boundaries between various specialties have blurred, as they are all influenced by basic research in neuroscience. For example, brain imaging enables objective biological insight into mental illnesses, which can lead to faster diagnosis, more accurate prognosis, and improved monitoring of patient progress over time.

Integrative neuroscience describes the effort to combine models and information from multiple levels of research to develop a coherent model of the nervous system. For example, brain imaging coupled with physiological numerical models and theories of fundamental mechanisms may shed light on psychiatric disorders.


One of the main goals of nanoneuroscience is to gain a detailed understanding of how the nervous system operates and, thus, how neurons organise themselves in the brain. Consequently, creating drugs and devices that are able to cross the blood brain barrier (BBB) are essential to allow for detailed imaging and diagnoses. The blood brain barrier functions as a highly specialised semipermeable membrane surrounding the brain, preventing harmful molecules that may be dissolved in the circulation blood from entering the central nervous system.

The main two hurdles for drug-delivering molecules to access the brain are size (must have a molecular weight < 400 Da) and lipid solubility. Physicians hope to circumvent difficulties in accessing the central nervous system through viral gene therapy. This often involves direct injection into the patient’s brain or cerebral spinal fluid. The drawback of this therapy is that it is invasive and carries a high risk factor due to the necessity of surgery for the treatment to be administered. Because of this, only 3.6% of clinical trials in this field have progressed to stage III since the concept of gene therapy was developed in the 1980s.

Another proposed way to cross the BBB is through temporary intentional disruption of the barrier. This method was first inspired by certain pathological conditions that were discovered to break down this barrier by themselves, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and seizure conditions.

Nanoparticles are unique from macromolecules because their surface properties are dependent on their size, allowing for strategic manipulation of these properties (or, “programming”) by scientists that would not be possible otherwise. Likewise, nanoparticle shape can also be varied to give a different set of characteristics based on the surface area to volume ratio of the particle.

Nanoparticles have promising therapeutic effects when treating neurodegenerative diseases. Oxygen reactive polymer (ORP) is a nano-platform programmed to react with oxygen and has been shown to detect and reduce the presence of reactive oxygen species (ROS) formed immediately after traumatic brain injuries. Nanoparticles have also been employed as a “neuroprotective” measure, as is the case with Alzheimer’s disease and stroke models. Alzheimer’s disease results in toxic aggregates of the amyloid beta protein formed in the brain. In one study, gold nanoparticles were programmed to attach themselves to these aggregates and were successful in breaking them up. Likewise, with ischemic stroke models, cells in the affected region of the brain undergo apoptosis, dramatically reducing blood flow to important parts of the brain and often resulting in death or severe mental and physical changes. Platinum nanoparticles have been shown to act as ROS, serving as “biological antioxidants” and significantly reducing oxidation in the brain as a result of stroke. Nanoparticles can also lead to neurotoxicity and cause permanent BBB damage either from brain oedema or from unrelated molecules crossing the BBB and causing brain damage. This proves further long term in vivo studies are needed to gain enough understanding to allow for successful clinical trials.

One of the most common nano-based drug delivery platforms is liposome-based delivery. They are both lipid-soluble and nano-scale and thus are permitted through a fully functioning BBB. Additionally, lipids themselves are biological molecules, making them highly biocompatible, which in turn lowers the risk of cell toxicity. The bilayer that is formed allows the molecule to fully encapsulate any drug, protecting it while it is travelling through the body. One drawback to shielding the drug from the outside cells is that it no longer has specificity, and requires coupling to extra antibodies to be able to target a biological site. Due to their low stability, liposome-based nanoparticles for drug delivery have a short shelf life.

Targeted therapy using magnetic nanoparticles (MNPs) is also a popular topic of research and has led to several stage III clinical trials. Invasiveness is not an issue here because a magnetic force can be applied from the outside of a patient’s body to interact and direct the MNPs. This strategy has been proven successful in delivering Brain-derived neurotropic factor, a naturally occurring gene thought to promote neurorehabilitation, across the BBB.

Major Branches

Modern neuroscience education and research activities can be very roughly categorised into the following major branches, based on the subject and scale of the system in examination as well as distinct experimental or curricular approaches. Individual neuroscientists, however, often work on questions that span several distinct subfields.

Affective NeuroscienceAffective neuroscience is the study of the neural mechanisms involved in emotion, typically through experimentation on animal models.
Behavioural NeuroscienceBehavioural neuroscience (also known as biological psychology, physiological psychology, biopsychology, or psychobiology) is the application of the principles of biology to the study of genetic, physiological, and developmental mechanisms of behaviour in humans and non-human animals.
Cellular NeuroscienceCellular neuroscience is the study of neurons at a cellular level including morphology and physiological properties.
Clinical NeuroscienceThe scientific study of the biological mechanisms that underlie the disorders and diseases of the nervous system.
Cognitive NeuroscienceCognitive neuroscience is the study of the biological mechanisms underlying cognition.
Computational NeuroscienceComputational neuroscience is the theoretical study of the nervous system.
Cultural NeuroscienceCultural neuroscience is the study of how cultural values, practices and beliefs shape and are shaped by the mind, brain and genes across multiple timescales.
Developmental NeuroscienceDevelopmental neuroscience studies the processes that generate, shape, and reshape the nervous system and seeks to describe the cellular basis of neural development to address underlying mechanisms.
Evolutionary NeuroscienceEvolutionary neuroscience studies the evolution of nervous systems.
Molecular NeuroscienceMolecular neuroscience studies the nervous system with molecular biology, molecular genetics, protein chemistry, and related methodologies.
Neural NeuroscienceNeural engineering uses engineering techniques to interact with, understand, repair, replace, or enhance neural systems.
NeuroanatomyNeuroanatomy is the study of the anatomy of nervous systems.
NeurochemistryNeurochemistry is the study of how neurochemicals interact and influence the function of neurons.
NeuroethologyNeuroethology is the study of the neural basis of non-human animals behaviour.
NeurogastronomyNeurogastronomy is the study of flavour and how it affects sensation, cognition, and memory.
NeurogeneticsNeurogenetics is the study of the genetical basis of the development and function of the nervous system.
NeuroimagingNeuroimaging includes the use of various techniques to either directly or indirectly image the structure and function of the brain.
NeuroimmunologyNeuroimmunology is concerned with the interactions between the nervous and the immune system.
NeuroinformaticsNeuroinformatics is a discipline within bioinformatics that conducts the organisation of neuroscience data and application of computational models and analytical tools.
NeurolinguisticsNeurolinguistics is the study of the neural mechanisms in the human brain that control the comprehension, production, and acquisition of language.
NeurophysicsNeurophysics deals with the development of physical experimental tools to gain information about the brain.
NeurophysiologyNeurophysiology is the study of the functioning of the nervous system, generally using physiological techniques that include measurement and stimulation with electrodes or optically with ion- or voltage-sensitive dyes or light-sensitive channels.
NeuropsychologyNeuropsychology is a discipline that resides under the umbrellas of both psychology and neuroscience, and is involved in activities in the arenas of both basic science and applied science. In psychology, it is most closely associated with biopsychology, clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, and developmental psychology. In neuroscience, it is most closely associated with the cognitive, behavioural, social, and affective neuroscience areas. In the applied and medical domain, it is related to neurology and psychiatry.
PaleoneurobiologyPaleoneurobiology is a field which combines techniques used in palaeontology and archaeology to study brain evolution, especially that of the human brain.
Social NeuroscienceSocial neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field devoted to understanding how biological systems implement social processes and behaviour, and to using biological concepts and methods to inform and refine theories of social processes and behaviour.
Systems NeuroscienceSystems neuroscience is the study of the function of neural circuits and systems.

Neuroscience Organisations

The largest professional neuroscience organisation is the Society for Neuroscience (SFN), which is based in the United States but includes many members from other countries. Since its founding in 1969 the SFN has grown steadily: as of 2010 it recorded 40,290 members from 83 different countries. Annual meetings, held each year in a different American city, draw attendance from researchers, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduates, as well as educational institutions, funding agencies, publishers, and hundreds of businesses that supply products used in research.

Other major organisations devoted to neuroscience include the International Brain Research Organisation (IBRO), which holds its meetings in a country from a different part of the world each year, and the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS), which holds a meeting in a different European city every two years. FENS comprises a set of 32 national-level organisations, including the British Neuroscience Association, the German Neuroscience Society (Neurowissenschaftliche Gesellschaft), and the French Société des Neurosciences. The first National Honour Society in Neuroscience, Nu Rho Psi, was founded in 2006. Numerous youth neuroscience societies which support undergraduates, graduates and early career researchers also exist, like Project Encephalon.

In 2013, the BRAIN Initiative was announced in the US. An International Brain Initiative was created in 2017, currently integrated by more than seven national-level brain research initiatives (US, Europe, Allen Institute, Japan, China, Australia, Canada, Korea, Israel) spanning four continents.

Public Education and Outreach

In addition to conducting traditional research in laboratory settings, neuroscientists have also been involved in the promotion of awareness and knowledge about the nervous system among the general public and government officials. Such promotions have been done by both individual neuroscientists and large organisations. For example, individual neuroscientists have promoted neuroscience education among young students by organising the International Brain Bee, which is an academic competition for high school or secondary school students worldwide. In the United States, large organisations such as the Society for Neuroscience have promoted neuroscience education by developing a primer called Brain Facts, collaborating with public school teachers to develop Neuroscience Core Concepts for K-12 teachers and students, and cosponsoring a campaign with the Dana Foundation called Brain Awareness Week to increase public awareness about the progress and benefits of brain research. In Canada, the CIHR Canadian National Brain Bee is held annually at McMaster University.

Neuroscience educators formed Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN) in 1992 to share best practices and provide travel awards for undergraduates presenting at Society for Neuroscience meetings.

Finally, neuroscientists have also collaborated with other education experts to study and refine educational techniques to optimise learning among students, an emerging field called educational neuroscience. Federal agencies in the United States, such as the National Institute of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), have also funded research that pertains to best practices in teaching and learning of neuroscience concepts.

On This Day … 14 November

People (Births)

  • 1895 – Walter Jackson Freeman II, American physician and psychiatrist (d. 1972).

People (Deaths)

  • 2008 – Robert E. Valett, American psychologist, teacher, and author (b. 1927).

Walter Jackson Freeman II

Walter Jackson Freeman II (14 November 1895 to 31 May 1972) was an American physician who specialized in lobotomy.

Biography and Early Years

Walter J. Freeman was born on 14 November 1895, and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by his parents. Freeman’s grandfather, William Williams Keen, was well known as a surgeon in the Civil War. His father was also a very successful doctor. Freeman attended Yale University beginning in 1912, and graduated in 1916. He then moved on to study neurology at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. While attending medical school, he studied the work of William Spiller and idolized his groundbreaking work in the new field of the neurological sciences. Spiller also worked in Philadelphia and was credited by many in the world of psychology as being the founder of neurology. Freeman applied for a coveted position working alongside Spiller in his home town of Philadelphia, but was rejected.

Shortly afterward, in 1924, Freeman relocated to Washington, D.C., and started practicing as the first neurologist in the city. Upon his arrival in Washington, Freeman began work directing laboratories at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Working at the hospital and witnessing the pain and distress suffered by the patients encouraged him to continue his education in the field. Freeman earned his PhD in neuropathology within the following few years and secured a position at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., as head of the neurology department.

In 1932, his mother died at the Philadelphia Orthopaedic Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


The first systematic attempt at human psychosurgery – performed in the 1880s-1890s – is commonly attributed to the Swiss psychiatrist Gottlieb Burckhardt. Burckhardt’s experimental surgical forays were largely condemned at the time and in the subsequent decades psychosurgery was attempted only intermittently. On 12 November 1935, a new psychosurgery procedure was performed in Portugal under the direction of the neurologist and physician Egas Moniz. His new “leucotomy” procedure, intended to treat mental illness, took small corings of the patient’s frontal lobes. Moniz became a mentor and idol for Freeman who modified the procedure and renamed it the “lobotomy”. Instead of taking coring’s from the frontal lobes, Freeman’s procedure severed the connection between the frontal lobes and the thalamus. Because Freeman lost his license to perform surgery himself after his last patient died on the operating table, he enlisted neurosurgeon James Watts as a research partner. One year after the first leucotomy, on 14 September 1936, Freeman directed Watts through the very first prefrontal lobotomy in the United States on housewife Alice Hood Hammatt of Topeka, Kansas. By November, only two months after performing their first lobotomy surgery, Freeman and Watts had already worked on 20 cases including several follow-up operations. By 1942, the duo had performed over 200 lobotomy procedures and had published results claiming 63% of patients had improved, 24% were reported to be unchanged and 14% were worse after surgery.

After almost ten years of performing lobotomies, Freeman heard of a doctor in Italy named Amarro Fiamberti who operated on the brain through his patients’ eye sockets, allowing him to access the brain without drilling through the skull. After experimenting with novel ways of performing these brain surgeries, Freeman formulated a new procedure called the transorbital lobotomy. This new procedure became known as the “icepick” lobotomy and was performed by inserting a metal pick into the corner of each eye-socket, hammering it through the thin bone there with a mallet, and moving it back and forth, severing the connections to the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobes of the brain. He performed the transorbital lobotomy surgery for the first time in Washington, D.C., on a housewife named Sallie Ellen Ionesco. This transorbital lobotomy method did not require a neurosurgeon and could be performed outside of an operating room without the use of anaesthesia by using electroconvulsive therapy to induce seizure. The modifications to his lobotomy allowed Freeman to broaden the use of the surgery, which could be performed in psychiatric hospitals throughout the United States that were overpopulated and understaffed. In 1950, Walter Freeman’s long-time partner James Watts left their practice and split from Freeman due to his opposition to the cruelty and overuse of the transorbital lobotomy.

Following his development of the transorbital lobotomy, Freeman travelled across the country visiting mental institutions, performing lobotomies and spreading his views and methods to institution staff (Contrary to myth, there is no evidence that he referred to the van that he travelled in as a “lobotomobile”). Freeman’s name gained popularity despite the widespread criticism of his methods following a lobotomy on President John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary Kennedy, which left her with severe mental and physical disability. A memoir written by former patient Howard Dully, called My Lobotomy documented his experiences with Freeman and his long recovery after undergoing a lobotomy surgery at 12 years of age. Walter Freeman charged just $25 for each procedure that he performed. After four decades Freeman had personally performed possibly as many as 4,000 lobotomy surgeries in 23 states, of which 2,500 used his ice-pick procedure, despite the fact that he had no formal surgical training. In February 1967, Freeman performed his final surgery on Helen Mortensen. Mortensen was a long-term patient and was receiving her third lobotomy from Freeman. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage, as did as many as 100 of his other patients, and he was finally banned from performing surgery. His patients often had to be retaught how to eat and use the bathroom. Relapses were common, some never recovered, and about 15% died from the procedure. In 1951, one patient at Iowa’s Cherokee Mental Health Institute died when Freeman suddenly stopped for a photo during the procedure, and the surgical instrument accidentally penetrated too far into the patient’s brain. Freeman wore neither gloves nor mask during these procedures. He lobotomised nineteen minors, including a four-year-old child.

At fifty-seven years old, Freeman retired from his position at George Washington University and opened up a modest practice in California.

An extensive collection of Freeman’s papers were donated to The George Washington University in 1980. The collection largely deals with the work that Freeman and James W. Watts did on psychosurgery over the course of their medical careers. The collection is currently under the care of GWU’s Special Collections Research Centre, located in the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library.

Freeman was known for his eccentricities and he complemented his theatrical approach to demonstrating surgery by sporting a cane, goatee, and a narrow-brimmed hat.


Freeman died, of complications arising from an operation for cancer, on 31 May 1972.

He was survived by four children – Walter, Frank, Paul and Lorne – who became defenders of their father’s legacy. Paul became a psychiatrist in San Francisco and the eldest, Walter Jr., became a professor emeritus of neurobiology at University of California, Berkeley.

Contributions to Psychiatry

Walter Freeman nominated his mentor António Egas Moniz for a Nobel prize, and in 1949 Moniz won the Nobel prize in physiology and medicine. He pioneered and helped open up the psychiatric world to the idea of what would become psychosurgery. At the time, it was seen as a possible treatment for severe mental illness, but “within a few years, lobotomy was labelled one of the most barbaric mistakes of modern medicine.” He also helped to demonstrate the idea that mental events have a physiological basis. Despite his interest in the mind, Freeman was “uninterested in animal experiments or understanding what was happening in the brain”. Freeman was also co-founder and president of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology from 1946 to 1947 and a contributor and member of the American Psychiatric Association.


Freeman, W. & Watts, J.W. (1942) Psychosurgery: Intelligence, Emotion and Social Behaviour Following Prefrontal Lobotomy for Mental Disorders. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.

Robert E. Valett

Robert E. Valett (22 November 1927 to 14 November 2008) was an American psychology professor who wrote more than 20 books primarily focused on educational psychology. He earned the distinguished psychologist award from the San Joaquin Psychological Association and was a president of the California Association of School Psychologists.

Early Life and Education

Robert Edward Valett was born in Clinton, Iowa on 22 November 1927. His father, Edward John Valett, worked for the railroad as a pipe fitter and his mother, Myrtle (née Peterson), was a saleswoman. Valett attended Clinton High School while also achieving the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America. During World War 2, he served in the US Navy Medical Corps. He then did his undergraduate work at the University of Iowa and George Williams College. Valett went on to earn an MA from the University of Chicago (1951 ) and an (Ed.D.) in educational psychology from the University of California in Los Angeles.


Valett was a professor of psychology at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Ca., and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and taught psychology from 1970 to 1992 at California State University, Fresno where he was named Professor Emeritus. He authored several books on learning disabilities, child development, dyslexia and attention disorders/hyperactivity. He received the distinguished psychologist award from the San Joaquin Psychological Association in 1982 and served as president of the California Association of School Psychologists from 1971 to 1972.

Personal Life

In 1950, Valett married Shirley Bellman with whom he had 5 children. He died on 14 November 2008, in Fresno, California.


  • The Remediation of Learning Disabilities – Fearon Publishers 1967.
  • A Psychoeducational Inventory of Basic Learning Abilities – Fearon Publishers 1968.
  • Developmental Task Analysis – 1969.
  • Programming Learning Disabilities – Fearon 1969.
  • Modifying Children’s Behaviour: A Guide for Parents and Professionals – Fearon 1969.
  • Determining Individual Learning Objectives – Lear Siegler/Fearon 1972.
  • A Basic Screening and Referral Form for Children with Suspected Learning and Behavioural Disabilities – Fearon 1972.
  • Learning Disabilities: Diagnostic-Prescriptive Instruments – Lake Pub Co 1973.
  • Self-actualisation: A Guide to Happiness and Self-Determination – Argus Communications 1974.
  • The Psychoeducational Treatment of Hyperactive Children – Fearon 1974.
  • Affective-Humanistic Education; Goals, Programs & Learning Activities – L. Siegler/Fearon Publishers 1974.
  • Humanistic Education: Developing the Total Person – Mosby 1977.
  • Developing Cognitive Abilities: Teaching Children to Think – Mosby 1978.
  • The Dyslexia Screening Survey: A Checklist of Basic Neuropsychological Skills – Lake 1980.
  • Dyslexia, a Neuropsychological Approach to Educating Children With Severe Reading Disorders – Fearon Pitman, Costello Education 1980/
  • Valett Inventory of Critical Thinking Abilities (VICTA) – Wiley 1981.
  • How to Write an I.E. – with John Arena 1989.
  • The Valett Perceptual-Motor Transitions to Reading Programme – with Shirley Bellamn Valett, Academic Therapy Publications 1990.
  • Spiritual Guide to Holistic Health and Happiness – Authors Choice Press 1997.

Are Lifestyle Factors Advantageous as First-Line Interventions in Mental Health?

Research Paper Title

The Effect of Exercise on Mental Health: A Focus on Inflammatory Mechanisms.


A growing body of research suggests that neuropsychiatric disorders are closely associated with a background state of chronic, low-grade inflammation.

This insight highlights that these disorders are not just localised to dysfunction within the brain, but also have a systemic aspect, which accounts for the frequent comorbid presentation of chronic inflammatory conditions and metabolic syndromes.

It is possible that a treatment resistant subgroup of neuropsychiatric patients may benefit from treatment regimens that target their associated proinflammatory state.

Lifestyle factors such as physical activity (PA) and exercise (i.e. structured PA) are known to influence mental health. In turn, mental disorders may limit health-seeking behaviours – a proposed “bidirectional relationship” that perpetuates psychopathology. PA is renowned for its positive physical, physiological and mental health benefits.

Evidence now points to inflammatory pathways as a potential mechanism for PA in improving mental illness. Relevant pathways include:

  • Modulation of immune-neuroendocrine and neurotransmitter systems;
  • The production of tissue-derived immunological factors that alter the inflammatory milieu; and
  • Neurotrophins that are critical mediators of neuroplasticity.


In this paper, the researchers focus on the role of PA in positively improving mental health through potential modulation of chronic inflammation, which is often found in individuals with mental disorders.

In a related paper by Edirappuli and colleagues (2020), they will focus on the role of nutrition (another significant lifestyle factor) on mental health.


Thus, inflammation appears to be a central process underlying mental illness, which may be mitigated by lifestyle modifications.


Lifestyle factors are advantageous as first-line interventions due to their cost efficacy, low side-effect profile, and both preventative and therapeutic attributes.

By promoting these lifestyle modifications and addressing their limitations and barriers to their adoption, it is hoped that their preventative and remedial benefits may galvanize therapeutic progress for neuropsychiatric disorders.


Venkatesh, A., Edirappuli, S.D., Zaman, H.P. & Zaman, R. (2020) The Effect of Exercise on Mental Health: A Focus on Inflammatory Mechanisms. Psychiatira Danubina. 32(Suppl 1), pp.105-113.

What is the Effect of Nutrition on Mental HEalth?

Research Paper Title

The Effect of Nutrition on Mental Health: A Focus on Inflammatory Mechanisms.


Neuropsychiatric disorders are closely associated with a persistent low-grade inflammatory state.

This suggests that the development of psychopathology is not only limited to the brain, but rather involves an additional systemic aspect, accounting for the large body of evidence demonstrating co-presentation of mental illness with chronic inflammatory conditions and metabolic syndromes.

Studies have shown that inflammatory processes underlie the development of neuropsychiatric symptoms, with recent studies revealing not only correlative, but causative relationships between the immune system and psychopathology.

Lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise may influence psychopathology, and this may occur via a bidirectional relationship.

Mental illness may prevent health-seeking behaviours such as failing to maintain a balanced diet, whilst adopting a ‘healthy’ diet rich in fruits, vegetables and fish alongside nutritional supplementation correlates with a reduction in psychiatric symptoms in patients.

Obesity and the gut microbiome have proven to be further factors which play an important role in inflammatory signalling and the development of psychiatric symptoms.

In a related paper the authors focus on the role of exercise (another significant lifestyle factor) on mental health (Venkatesh et al. 2020).


Lifestyle modifications which target diet and nutrition may prove therapeutically beneficial for many patients, especially in treatment-resistant subgroups.

The current evidence base provides equivocal evidence, however future studies will prove significant, as this is a highly attractive therapeutic avenue, due to its cost efficacy, low side effect profile and preventative potential.

By promoting lifestyle changes and addressing the limitations and barriers to adoption, these therapies may prove revolutionary for mental health conditions.


Edirappuli, S.D., Venkatesh, A. & Zaman, R. (2020) The Effect of Nutrition on Mental Health: A Focus on Inflammatory Mechanisms. Psychiatria Danubina. 32(Suppl 1), pp.114-120.

Linking Environmental Factors and Mental Health

Research Paper Title

From Family Surroundings to Intestinal Flora, A Literature Review Concerning Epigenetic Processes in Psychiatric Disorders.


Some behaviours or psychiatric conditions seem to be inherited from parents or explain by family environment.

The researchers hypothesised interactions between epigenetic processes, inflammatory response and gut microbiota with family surroundings or environmental characteristics.


The researchers searched in literature interactions between epigenetic processes and psychiatric disorders with a special interest for environmental factors such as traumatic or stress events, family relationships and also gut microbiota.

They searched on Pubmed, PsycINFO, PsycARTICLES and Sciencedirect articles with the keywords psychiatric disorders, epigenome, microbiome and family relationships.


Some gene polymorphisms interact with negative environment and lead to psychiatric disorders.

Negative environment is correlated with different epigenetic modifications in genes implicated in mental health. Gut microbiota diversity affect host epigenetic.

Animal studies showed evidences for a transgenerational transmission of epigenetic characteristics.


The findings support the hypothesis that epigenetic mediate gene-environment interactions and psychiatric disorders.

Several environmental characteristics such as traumatic life events, family adversity, psychological stress or internal environment such as gut microbiota diversity and diet showed an impact on epigenetic.

These epigenetic modifications are also correlated with neurophysiological, inflammatory or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysregulations.


Dubois, T., Reynaert, C., Jacques, D., Lepiece, B. & Zdanowicz, N. (2020) From Family Surroundings to Intestinal Flora, A Literature Review Concerning Epigenetic Processes in Psychiatric Disorders. Psychiatria Danubina. 32(Suppl 1), pp.158-163.

Is Protein Intake Associated with Cognitive Functioning in Individuals with Psychiatric Disorders?

Research Paper Title

Protein intake is associated with cognitive functioning in individuals with psychiatric disorders.


Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are associated with reduced cognitive functioning which contributes to problems in day-to-day functioning and social outcomes.

A paucity of research exists relating dietary factors to cognitive functioning in serious mental illnesses, and results are inconsistent.

The study aims to describe the nutritional intake of persons with schizophrenia and those with a recent episode of acute mania and to determine relationships between the intake of protein and other nutrients on cognitive functioning in the psychiatric sample.


Persons with schizophrenia and those with acute mania were assessed using a 24-h dietary recall tool to determine their intakes of protein and other nutrients.

They were also assessed with a test battery measuring different domains of cognitive functioning. Results indicate that lower amounts of dietary protein intake were associated with reduced cognitive functioning independent of demographic and clinical factors.


The association was particularly evident in measures of immediate memory and language.

There were not associations between cognitive functioning and other nutritional variables, including total energy, gluten, casein, saturated fat, or sugar intakes.


The impact of dietary interventions, including protein intake, on improving cognitive functioning in individuals with psychiatric disorders warrants further investigation.


Dickerson, F., Gennusa, J.V. 3rd, Stallings, C., Origoni, A., Katsafanas, E., Sweeney, K., Campbell, W.W. & Yolken, R. (2019) Protein intake is associated with cognitive functioning in individuals with psychiatric disorders. Psychiatry Research. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2019.112700. [Epub ahead of print].

Is Skin Fairness a Better Predictor for Impaired Physical & Mental Health than Hair Redness?

Research Paper Title

Skin fairness is a better predictor for impaired physical and mental health than hair redness.


About 1-2% of people of European origin have red hair.

Especially female redheads are known to suffer higher pain sensitivity and higher incidence of some disorders, including skin cancer, Parkinson’s disease and endometriosis.


Recently, an explorative study performed on 7,000 subjects showed that both male and female redheads score worse on many health-related variables and express a higher incidence of cancer.

Here, the researchers ran the preregistered study on a population of 4,117 subjects who took part in an anonymous electronic survey.


They confirmed that the intensity of hair redness negatively correlated with physical health, mental health, fecundity and sexual desire, and positively with the number of kinds of drugs prescribed by a doctor currently taken, and with reported symptoms of impaired mental health.

It also positively correlated with certain neuropsychiatric disorders, most strongly with learning disabilities disorder and phobic disorder in men and general anxiety disorder in women.

However, most of these associations disappeared when the darkness of skin was included in the models, suggesting that skin fairness, not hair redness, is responsible for the associations.


The researchers discussed two possible explanations for the observed pattern, the first based on vitamin D deficiency due to the avoidance of sunbathing by subjects with sensitive skin, including some redheads, and second based on folic acid depletion in fair skinned subjects, again including some (a different subpopulation of) redheads.

It must be emphasised, however, that both of these explanations are only hypothetical as no data on the concentration of vitamin D or folic acid are available for the subjects.

The results, as well as the conclusions of current reviews, suggest that the new empirical studies on the concentration of vitamin D and folic acids in relation to skin and hair pigmentation are urgently needed.


Flegr, J. & Sýkorová, K. (2019) Skin fairness is a better predictor for impaired physical and mental health than hair redness. Scientific Reports. 9(1):18138. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-54662-5.