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.

What is Learned Helplessness?


Learned helplessness is behaviour exhibited by a subject after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control. It was initially thought to be caused from the subject’s acceptance of their powerlessness: discontinuing attempts to escape or avoid the aversive stimulus, even when such alternatives are unambiguously presented. Upon exhibiting such behaviour, the subject was said to have acquired learned helplessness.

Over the past few decades, neuroscience has provided insight into learned helplessness and shown that the original theory actually had it backwards: the brain’s default state is to assume that control is not present, and the presence of “helpfulness” is what is actually learned.

In humans, learned helplessness is related to the concept of self-efficacy; the individual’s belief in their innate ability to achieve goals. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from such real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.

Refer to Learned Optimism.

Foundation of Research and Theory

Early Experiments

American psychologist Martin Seligman initiated research on learned helplessness in 1967 at the University of Pennsylvania as an extension of his interest in depression. This research was later expanded through experiments by Seligman and others. One of the first was an experiment by Seligman & Maier:

  • In Part 1 of this study, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses.
    • Group 1 dogs were simply put in a harness for a period of time and were later released.
    • Groups 2 and 3 consisted of “yoked pairs”.
    • Dogs in Group 2 were given electric shocks at random times, which the dog could end by pressing a lever.
    • Each dog in Group 3 was paired with a Group 2 dog; whenever a Group 2 dog got a shock, its paired dog in Group 3 got a shock of the same intensity and duration, but its lever did not stop the shock.
    • To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was their paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop.
    • Thus, for Group 3 dogs, the shock was “inescapable”.
  • In Part 2 of the experiment the same three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus (a chamber containing two rectangular compartments divided by a barrier a few inches high).
    • All of the dogs could escape shocks on one side of the box by jumping over a low partition to the other side.
    • The dogs in Groups 1 and 2 quickly learned this task and escaped the shock.
    • Most of the Group 3 dogs – which had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on shocks – simply lay down passively and whined when they were shocked.

In a second experiment later that year with new groups of dogs, Overmier and Seligman ruled out the possibility that, instead of learned helplessness, the Group 3 dogs failed to avert in the second part of the test because they had learned some behaviour that interfered with “escape”. To prevent such interfering behaviour, Group 3 dogs were immobilised with a paralysing drug (curare), and underwent a procedure similar to that in Part 1 of the Seligman and Maier experiment. When tested as before in Part 2, these Group 3 dogs exhibited helplessness as before. This result serves as an indicator for the ruling out of the interference hypothesis.

From these experiments, it was thought that there was to be only one cure for helplessness. In Seligman’s hypothesis, the dogs do not try to escape because they expect that nothing they do will stop the shock. To change this expectation, experimenters physically picked up the dogs and moved their legs, replicating the actions the dogs would need to take in order to escape from the electrified grid. This had to be done at least twice before the dogs would start wilfully jumping over the barrier on their own. In contrast, threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no effect on the “helpless” Group 3 dogs.

Later Experiments

Later experiments have served to confirm the depressive effect of feeling a lack of control over an aversive stimulus. For example, in one experiment, humans performed mental tasks in the presence of distracting noise. Those who could use a switch to turn off the noise rarely bothered to do so, yet they performed better than those who could not turn off the noise. Simply being aware of this option was enough to substantially counteract the noise effect. In 2011, an animal study found that animals with control over stressful stimuli exhibited changes in the excitability of certain neurons in the prefrontal cortex. Animals that lacked control failed to exhibit this neural effect and showed signs consistent with learned helplessness and social anxiety.

Expanded Theories

Research has found that a human’s reaction to feeling a lack of control differs both between individuals and between situations, i.e. learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation but at other times generalises across situations. Such variations are not explained by the original theory of learned helplessness, and an influential view is that such variations depend on an individual’s attributional or explanatory style. According to this view, how someone interprets or explains adverse events affects their likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression. For example, people with pessimistic explanatory style tend to see negative events as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it’s my fault”), and pervasive (“I can’t do anything correctly”), and are likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression.

Bernard Weiner proposed a detailed account of the attributional approach to learned helplessness. His attribution theory includes the dimensions of globality/specificity, stability/instability, and internality/externality:

  • A global attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of negative events is consistent across different contexts.
    • A specific attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of a negative event is unique to a particular situation.
  • A stable attribution occurs when the individual believes the cause to be consistent across time.
    • An unstable attribution occurs when the individual thinks that the cause is specific to one point in time.
  • An external attribution assigns causality to situational or external factors,
    • while an internal attribution assigns causality to factors within the person.

Research has shown that those with an internal, stable, and global attributional style for negative events can be more at risk for a depressive reaction to failure experiences.

Neurobiological Perspective

Research has shown that increased 5-HT (serotonin) activity in the dorsal raphe nucleus plays a critical role in learned helplessness. Other key brain regions that are involved with the expression of helpless behaviour include the basolateral amygdala, central nucleus of the amygdala and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis. Activity in medial prefrontal cortex, dorsal hippocampus, septum and hypothalamus has also been observed during states of helplessness.

In the article, “Exercise, Learned Helplessness, and the Stress-Resistant Brain”, Benjamin N. Greenwood and Monika Fleshner discuss how exercise might prevent stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression. They show evidence that running wheel exercise prevents learned helplessness behaviours in rats. They suggest that the amount of exercise may not be as important as simply exercising at all. The article also discusses the neurocircuitry of learned helplessness, the role of serotonin (or 5-HT), and the exercise-associated neural adaptations that may contribute to the stress-resistant brain. However, the authors finally conclude that:

“The underlying neurobiological mechanisms of this effect, however, remain unknown. Identifying the mechanisms by which exercise prevents learned helplessness could shed light on the complex neurobiology of depression and anxiety and potentially lead to novel strategies for the prevention of stress-related mood disorders”.

Health Implications

People who perceive events as uncontrollable show a variety of symptoms that threaten their mental and physical well-being. They experience stress, they often show disruption of emotions demonstrating passivity or aggressiveness, and they can also have difficulty performing cognitive tasks such as problem-solving. They are less likely to change unhealthy patterns of behaviour, causing them, for example, to neglect diet, exercise, and medical treatment.


Abnormal and cognitive psychologists have found a strong correlation between depression-like symptoms and learned helplessness in laboratory animals.

Young adults and middle-aged parents with a pessimistic explanatory style often suffer from depression. They tend to be poor at problem-solving and cognitive restructuring, and also tend to demonstrate poor job satisfaction and interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Those with a pessimistic style also tend to have weakened immune systems, having not only increased vulnerability to minor ailments (e.g. cold, fever) and major illness (e.g. heart attack, cancers), but also poorer recovery from health problems.

Social Impact

Learned helplessness can be a factor in a wide range of social situations.

  • In emotionally abusive relationships, the victim often develops learned helplessness.
    • This occurs when the victim confronts or tries to leave the abuser only to have the abuser dismiss or trivialise the victim’s feelings, pretend to care but not change, or impede the victim from leaving.
  • The motivational effect of learned helplessness is often seen in the classroom.
    • Students who repeatedly fail may conclude that they are incapable of improving their performance, and this attribution keeps them from trying to succeed, which results in increased helplessness, continued failure, loss of self-esteem and other social consequences.
  • Child abuse by neglect can be a manifestation of learned helplessness.
    • For example, when parents believe they are incapable of stopping an infant’s crying, they may simply give up trying to do anything for the child.
  • Those who are extremely shy or anxious in social situations may become passive due to feelings of helplessness.
    • Gotlib and Beatty (1985) found that people who cite helplessness in social settings may be viewed poorly by others, which tends to reinforce the passivity.
  • Aging individuals may respond with helplessness to the deaths of friends and family members, the loss of jobs and income, and the development of age-related health problems.
    • This may cause them to neglect their medical care, financial affairs, and other important needs.
  • According to Cox et al., Abramson, Devine, and Hollon (2012), learned helplessness is a key factor in depression that is caused by inescapable prejudice (i.e. “deprejudice”).
    • Thus: “Helplessness born in the face of inescapable prejudice matches the helplessness born in the face of inescapable shocks.”
  • According to Ruby K. Payne’s book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, treatment of the poor can lead to a cycle of poverty, a culture of poverty, and generational poverty.
    • This type of learned helplessness is passed from parents to children.
    • People who embrace this mentality feel there is no way to escape poverty and so one must live in the moment and not plan for the future, trapping families in poverty.

Social problems resulting from learned helplessness may seem unavoidable to those entrenched. However, there are various ways to reduce or prevent it. When induced in experimental settings, learned helplessness has been shown to resolve itself with the passage of time. People can be immunized against the perception that events are uncontrollable by increasing their awareness of previous experiences, when they were able to effect a desired outcome. Cognitive therapy can be used to show people that their actions do make a difference and bolster their self-esteem.


Cognitive scientist and usability engineer Donald Norman used learned helplessness to explain why people blame themselves when they have a difficult time using simple objects in their environment.

The UK educationalist Phil Bagge describes it as a learning avoidance strategy caused by prior failure and the positive reinforcement of avoidance such as asking teachers or peers to explain and consequently do the work. It shows itself as sweet helplessness or aggressive helplessness often seen in challenging problem solving contexts, such as learning to use a new computer programming language.

The US sociologist Harrison White has suggested in his book Identity and Control that the notion of learned helplessness can be extended beyond psychology into the realm of social action. When a culture or political identity fails to achieve desired goals, perceptions of collective ability suffer.

Emergence under Torture

Studies on learned helplessness served as the basis for developing enhanced interrogation techniques. In CIA interrogation manuals, learned helplessness is characterised as “apathy” which may result from prolonged use of coercive techniques which result in a “debility-dependency-dread” state in the subject, “If the debility-dependency-dread state is unduly prolonged, however, the arrestee may sink into a defensive apathy from which it is hard to arouse him.”

What Causes Addiction?

What causes addiction?

Easy, right? Drugs cause addiction. But maybe it is not that simple.

Again, watched this on the introductory peer support course I am attending, definitely challenges the generally accepted convention of addiction.

This video is adapted from Johann Hari’s New York Times best-selling book ‘Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.’

For more information, and to take a quiz to see what you know about addiction, go to http://www.chasingthescream.com.

Book: Mental Health Workbook

Book Title:

Mental Health Workbook: 4 Books In 1: How to Use Neuroscience and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to Declutter Your Mind, Stop Overthinking and Quickly Overcome Anxiety, Worry and Panic Attacks.

Author(s): Edward Scott.

Year: 2020.

Edition: First (1st).

Publisher: Saturno Lecca.

Type(s): Hardcover, Paperback, and Kindle.


Want to learn more about neuroscience paired with cognitive behavioural therapy? Would you like to figure out how to clear your mind by stopping stress, stopping overthinking, overcoming anxiety, worries and panic attacks? If so, read on!

The Cognitive behavioural therapy has been shown to be effective in relieving symptoms in a wide range of mental health problems, ranging from addiction to schizophrenia, along with almost everything in between. It has been shown to be useful for longer than drugs and other forms of therapy.

Excessive thinking can be a side effect of some nervousness problems; however, it can also be an indication of simply being overwhelmed.

One of the most important reasons you want to clear your mind is because it is already playing a negative role in your life. Living with constant negative thoughts and intense fears can cause someone to crave a way to relieve pain or develop unhealthy habits that could get worse.

Anxiety is linked to many other mental illnesses, especially depression!

The main focus of this book is to follow the steps which will improve your thinking

This book covers the following topics

  • What is cognitive behavioural therapy?
  • Stages of cognitive behavioural therapy
  • Definition of excessive thinking.
  • How to identify if you are an excessive thinker.
  • The relationship between excessive thinking, anxiety and stress.
  • Health Benefits of Decluttering.
  • Usual remedy in localised deep breathing.
  • Believe in your self-esteem.
  • And many more.

Before learning the exercises that eliminate negative thinking, you should understand why you have these thoughts.

In fact, the stress caused by information overload, endless options and physical clutter can trigger various mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. Do you want to know how to prevent them?

On This Day … 01 October

People (Births)

  • 1940 – Phyllis Chesler, American feminist psychologist, and author of the best-seller, Women and Madness (1972).
  • 1950 – Susan Greenfield, Baroness Greenfield, English neuroscientist, academic, and politician.

Phyllis Chesler

Phyllis Chesler is an American writer, psychotherapist, and professor emerita of psychology and women’s studies at the College of Staten Island (CUNY).

She is known as a feminist psychologist, and is the author of 18 books, including the best-seller Women and Madness (1972), With Child: A Story of Motherhood (1979) and An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir (2013). Chesler has written on topics such as gender, mental illness, divorce and child custody, surrogacy, second-wave feminism, pornography, prostitution, incest, and violence against women.

In more recent years, Chesler has written several works on such subjects as anti-Semitism, Islam, and honor killings. Chesler argues that many western intellectuals, including leftists and feminists, have abandoned Western values in the name of multicultural relativism, and that this has led to an alliance with Islamists, an increase in anti-Semitism, and to the abandonment of Muslim women and religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries.

Susan Greenfield

Susan Adele Greenfield, Baroness Greenfield, CBE, FRCP is an English scientist, writer, broadcaster, and member of the House of Lords. Her research has focused on the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. She is also interested in the neuroscience of consciousness and the impact of technology on the brain.

Greenfield is a senior research fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, and was a professor of Synaptic Pharmacology.

She was chancellor of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh between 2005 and 2013. From 1998 to 2010, she was director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. In September 2013, she co-founded the biotech company Neuro-bio Ltd, where she is Chief Executive Officer.

Book: The End of Mental Illness

Book Title:

The End of Mental Illness: How Neuroscience Is Transforming Psychiatry and Helping Prevent or Reverse Mood and Anxiety Disorders, ADHD, Addictions, PTSD, Psychosis, Personality Disorders, and More.

Author(s): Daniel G. Amen.

Year: 2020.

Edition: First (1st), Illustrated Edition.

Publisher: Tyndale Momentum.

Type(s): Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook, and Kindle.


Though incidence of these conditions is skyrocketing, for the past four decades standard treatment hasn’t much changed, and success rates in treating them have barely improved, either. Meanwhile, the stigma of the “mental illness” label—damaging and devastating on its own—can often prevent sufferers from getting the help they need.

Brain specialist and bestselling author Dr. Daniel Amen is on the forefront of a new movement within medicine and related disciplines that aims to change all that. In The End of Mental Illness, Dr. Amen draws on the latest findings of neuroscience to challenge an outdated psychiatric paradigm and help readers take control and improve the health of their own brain, minimising or reversing conditions that may be preventing them from living a full and emotionally healthy life.

The End of Mental Illness will help you discover:

  • Why labeling someone as having a “mental illness” is not only inaccurate but harmful.
  • Why standard treatment may not have helped you or a loved one – and why diagnosing and treating you based on your symptoms alone so often misses the true cause of those symptoms and results in poor outcomes.
  • At least 100 simple things you can do yourself to heal your brain and prevent or reverse the problems that are making you feel sad, mad, or bad.
  • How to identify your “brain type” and what you can do to optimise your particular type.
  • Where to find the kind of health provider who understands and uses the new paradigm of brain health.

Book: Abnormal Psychology


Book Title:

Abnormal Pyschology.

Author(s): Ronald J. Comer and Jonathan S. Comer.

Year: 2018.

Edition: Tenth (10th).

Publisher: Worth Publihsers.

Type(s): Hardback.


Taking a look at the field of abnormal psychology, including major theoretical models of abnormality, research directions, clinical experiences, therapies and controversies, this book covers personality disorders, the psychodynamic perspective, neuroscience, the ’empirically-based treatment’ movement, and more.

Book: Food and Addiction – A Comprehensive Handbook

Book Title:

Food and Addiction – A Comprehensive Handbook.

Author(s): Kelly D. Brownell and Mark S. Gold (Editors).

Year: 2014.

Edition: First.

Publisher: Oxford University Press.

Type(s): Hardcover, Paperback and Kindle.


Can certain foods hijack the brain in ways similar to drugs and alcohol, and is this effect sufficiently strong to contribute to major diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and hence constitute a public health menace?

Terms like “chocoholic” and “food addict” are part of popular lore, some popular diet books discuss the concept of addiction, and there are food addiction programmes with names like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous.

Clinicians who work with patients often hear the language of addiction when individuals speak of irresistible cravings, withdrawal symptoms when starting a diet, and increasing intake of palatable foods over time.

But what does science show, and how strong is the evidence that food and addiction is a real and important phenomenon?

Food and Addiction: A Comprehensive Handbook brings scientific order to the issue of food and addiction, spanning multiple disciplines to create the foundation for what is a rapidly advancing field and to highlight needed advances in science and public policy.

The book assembles leading scientists and policy makers from fields such as nutrition, addiction, psychology, epidemiology, and public health to explore and analyse the scientific evidence for the addictive properties of food.

It provides complete and comprehensive coverage of all subjects pertinent to food and addiction, from basic background information on topics such as food intake, metabolism, and environmental risk factors for obesity, to diagnostic criteria for food addiction, the evolutionary and developmental bases of eating addictions, and behavioural and pharmacologic interventions, to the clinical, public health, and legal and policy implications of recognising the validity of food addiction.

Each chapter reviews the available science and notes needed scientific advances in the field.

Book: Flow – The Psychology of Happiness

Book Title:

Flow – The Psychology of Happiness.

Author(s): Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Year: 2013.

Edition: New Edition.

Publisher: Ebury Digital.

Type(s): Paperback and Kindle.


For more than two decades Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied those states in which people report feelings of concentration and deep enjoyment.

His studies revealed that what makes experience genuinely satisfying is ‘flow’ – a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to complete absorption in an activity and results in the achievement of a perfect state of happiness.

Flow has become the classic work on happiness and a major contribution to contemporary psychology.

It examines such timeless issues as the challenge of lifelong learning; family relationships; art, sport and sex as ‘flow’; the pain of loneliness; optimal use of free time; and how to make our lives meaningful.

Book: The Feeling Brain: The Biology and Psychology of Emotions

Book Title:

The Feeling Brain: The Biology and Psychology of Emotions.

Author(s): Elizabeth Johnston (DPhil) and Leah Olson (PhD).

Year: 2015.

Edition: One.

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company.

Type(s): Hardcover and Kindle.


A reader-friendly exploration of the science of emotion.

After years of neglect by both mainstream biology and psychology, the study of emotions has emerged as a central topic of scientific inquiry in the vibrant new discipline of affective neuroscience. Elizabeth Johnston and Leah Olson trace how work in this rapidly expanding field speaks to fundamental questions about the nature of emotion: What is the function of emotions? What is the role of the body in emotions? What are “feelings,” and how do they relate to emotions? Why are emotions so difficult to control? Is there an emotional brain?

The authors tackle these questions and more in this “tasting menu” of cutting-edge emotion research. They build their story around the path-breaking 19th century works of biologist Charles Darwin and psychologist and philosopher William James. James’s 1884 article “What Is an Emotion?” continues to guide contemporary debate about minds, brains, and emotions, while Darwin’s treatise on “The Expression of Emotions in Animals and Humans” squarely located the study of emotions as a critical concern in biology.

Throughout their study, Johnston and Olson focus on the key scientists whose work has shaped the field, zeroing in on the most brilliant threads in the emerging tapestry of affective neuroscience. Beginning with early work on the brain substrates of emotion by such workers such as James Papez and Paul MacLean, who helped define an emotional brain, they then examine the role of emotion in higher brain functions such as cognition and decision-making. They then investigate the complex interrelations of emotion and pleasure, introducing along the way the work of major researchers such as Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux. In doing so, they braid diverse strands of inquiry into a lucid and concise introduction to this burgeoning field, and begin to answer some of the most compelling questions in the field today.

How does the science of “normal” emotion inform our understanding of emotional disorders? To what extent can we regulate our emotions? When can we trust our emotions and when might they lead us astray? How do emotions affect our memories, and vice versa? How can we best describe the relationship between emotion and cognition? Johnston and Olson lay out the most salient questions of contemporary affective neuroscience in this study, expertly situating them in their biological, psychological, and philosophical contexts. They offer a compelling vision of an increasingly exciting and ambitious field for mental health professionals and the interested lay audience, as well as for undergraduate and graduate students.