Studying the Nervous System

The study of the nervous system involves anatomical and physiological techniques that have improved over the years in efficiency and caliber. Clearly, gross morphology of the nervous system requires an eye-level view of the brain and the spinal cord. However, to resolve minute components, optical and electron microscopic techniques are needed.

Light microscopes and, later, electron microscopes have changed our understanding of the intricate connections that exist among nerve cells. For example, modern staining procedures (immunocytochemistry) make it possible to see selected neurons that are of one type or another or are affected by growth. With better resolution of the electron microscopes, fine structures like the synaptic cleft between the pre- and post-synaptic neurons can be studied in detail.

Along with the neuroanatomical techniques, a number of other methodologies aid neuroscientists in studying the function and physiology of the nervous system. Early on, lesion studies in animals (and study of neurological damage in humans) provided information about the function of the nervous system, by ablating (removing) parts of the nervous system or using neurotoxins to destroy them and documenting the effects on behavior or mental processes. Later, more sophisticated microelectrode techniques were introduced, which led to recording from single neurons in the animal brains and investigating their physiological functions. Such studies led to formulating theories about how sensory and motor information are processed in the brain. To study many neurons (millions of them at a time) electroencephalographic (EEG) techniques were introduced. These methods are used to study how large ensembles of neurons, representing different parts of the nervous system, with (event-related potentials) or without stimulation function together. In addition, many scanning techniques that visualize the brain in conjunction with methods mentioned above are used to understand the details of the structure and function of the brain. These include computerized axial tomography (CAT), which uses X-rays to capture many pictures of the brain and sandwiches them into 3-D models to study it. The resolution of this method is inferior to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which is yet another way to capture brain images using large magnets that bobble (precession) hydrogen nuclei in the brain. Although the resolution of MRI scans is much better than CAT scans, they do not provide any functional information about the brain. Positron Emission Tomography (PET) involves the acquisition of physiologic (functional) images of the brain based on the detection of positrons. Radio- labeled isotopes of certain chemicals, such as an analog of glucose (fluorodeoxyglucose), enters the active nerve cells and emits positrons, which are captured and mapped into scans. Such scans show how the brain and its many modules become active (or not) when energized with entering glucose analog. Disadvantages of PET scans include being invasive and rendering poor spatial resolution. The latter is why modern PET machines are coupled with CAT scanners to gain better resolution of the functioning brain. Finally, to avoid the invasiveness of PET, functional MRI (fMRI) techniques were developed. Brain images based on fMRI technique visualize brain function by changes in the flow of fluids (blood) in brain areas that occur over time. These scans provide a wealth of functional information about the brain as the individual may engage in a task, which is why the last two methods of brain scanning are very popular among cognitive neuroscientists.

Understanding the nervous system has been a long journey of inquiry, spanning several hundreds of years of meticulous studies carried out by some of the most creative and versatile investigators in the fields of philosophy, evolution, biology, physiology, anatomy, neurology, neuroscience, cognitive sciences, and psychology. Despite our profound understanding of this organ, its mysteries continue to surprise us, and its intricacies make us marvel at this complex structure unmatched in the universe.


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UPEI Introduction to Psychology 1 Copyright © by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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