A head for knowledge: Neuroscience is a 21st century challenge

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The Independent Online

Inside our heads, weighing about 1.5kg, is an astonishing living organ consisting of billions of tiny cells. It enables us to sense the world around us, to think and to talk. The human brain is the most complex organ of the body, and, arguably, the most complex thing on earth.

Its study involves scientists and medical doctors from many disciplines, ranging from molecular biology through to experimental psychology, as well as the disciplines of anatomy, physiology and pharmacology. Their shared interest has led to a new discipline called neuroscience - the science of the brain.

The brain is made of nerve cells, or neurons - its building blocks - and these are connected together in networks. These neural networks are in a constant state of electrical and chemical activity. The brain can see, hear, smell and feel. It can sense pain and its chemical tricks help control the uncomfortable effects of pain. It has several areas devoted to co-ordinating our movements to carry out sophisticated actions - such as texting your mates!

A brain that can do these and many other things doesn't come fully formed: it develops gradually according to a plan laid down by our genes. When one or more of these genes goes wrong, various conditions develop, such as dyslexia.

Your brain can remember telephone numbers and what you did last Christmas and, hopefully, lots of important information for your exams! But as you know, it can all too often forget important things as well. It can certainly feel stressed and tired and regularly needs to rest and sleep.

There is still a lot to discover and study in the field of neuroscience. New techniques - including special electrodes that can touch the surface of cells, optical imaging, human brain scanning machines and silicon chips containing artificial neural networks - are changing the face of modern neuroscience all the time. So neuroscience, the science of the brain, is definitely a science of the 21st century - and one of our greatest challenges.

Helping touch people's lives

When most of us think of a career in science, it conjures up images of white coats and laboratories. But there are many different aspects to research and many other ways that neuroscience can touch people's lives. From the laboratory to the hospital to the newsroom, there is a diverse range of exciting opportunities.

Neuroscience degree courses

Many universities and colleges now offer undergraduate degrees in neuroscience. Often the subject is taken as a specialisation after training biology, physiology, pharmacology, psychology and other similar subjects. Knowledge of genetics and molecular biology can also be valuable.

You do not necessarily have to be studying only science subjects in the sixth form to get into some of these courses. Log on to www.ucas.co.uk to find out about neuroscience courses and their entry requirements.


Medicine in Britain is an undergraduate degree. Many universities have medical schools and there has recently been an expansion in the number of students being trained through the creation of several new medical schools. Specialisation in subject areas such as neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry and radiology comes in the later years of training, but there are often opportunities to work in neuroscience research laboratories during summer vacations and intercalating years. The competition to get into medical courses is considerable, but so are the rewards of a career in medicine.

Neuroscience research

There are a huge variety of opportunities in research. The field has many elements ranging from brain-imaging and behavioural studies through to neurophysiological and molecular-genetic research. Researchers within universities are always happy to encourage keen students to find a path of academic study that suits them.

Pharmaceutical industry

New medicines are constantly being discovered and developed and the brain is a critical target for drug treatment. As well as financially supporting academic institutions, pharmaceutical companies also conduct their own research. Many co-operate with universities to offer years in industry to help develop laboratory skills and experience. Graduates from a variety of biomedical science courses including neuroscience make desirable employees, particularly with associated laboratory experience.

Computing industry

Neuroscience may not jump to mind as a subject to do at university if you are interested in a career in computing or information technology. But there is growing interest in "brain-style" computing and this is set to grow with the development of the internet.

School teaching

Neuroscience is not yet a subject taught much in schools. However, graduates with a degree in neuroscience will be well placed to teach biology and will have many other skills that would be invaluable in a teaching career.

Science and the media

From television presenting to journalism, a career in the media is competitive and demanding. However, many opportunities to enter the field of science communication are available. Science is continually advancing and new findings need to be reported for the purposes of both education and public interest. Work on brain research is no exception. There is huge social interest, well recognised by the media and the latest findings have the potential to have considerable social impact. With a good scientific background and understanding of research, it would be much easier to communicate complex findings accurately and effectively both with other scientists and the public.

Science and art

Science and art are not mutually exclusive. Design that captures the imagination is crucial in the presentation of science to a wider audience. Museums, galleries and the media encourage and fund creative collaborations between scientists and artists.

Further reading

The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (Picador). An amusing account of the effects of brain damage on the mind, written by an eminent neurologist

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby (Fourth Estate)

A very personal and moving account of the consequences of a stroke.

Neuroscience - Science of the Brain: An Introduction for Young Students by The British Neuroscience Association (The British Neuroscience Association).

An excellent, short primer of collected articles exploring the breadth of neuroscience, designed for sixth form, first year undergraduate students.





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