|MadSci Network: Neuroscience|
Dear Marisa, Fantastic question! This is something that has interested people for at least 5,000 years. I will give you a brief answer to your question but I highly recommend that you look at the following web sites maintained by Dr. Eric Chudler, who is on the faculty of the University of Washington: The home page, called "Neuroscience for Kids": http://faculty.was hington.edu/chudler/neurok.html A description of the history of neuroscience research: http://faculty.washi ngton.edu/chudler/hist.html A description of the techniques used by neuroscientists: http://faculty.w ashington.edu/chudler/chmethod.html The oldest known description of the brain and of brain injury was recorded by an Egyptian physician, possibly named Imhotep. It was recorded on something called a papyrus. A description of the papyrus can be found here: http://faculty.washi ngton.edu/chudler/papy.html There are several techniques that neuroscientists use to study the brain and its functions. First, you are correct that some information has been gained by studying the brains of people who have died. This method has been used for centuries and is still used today. For example, the brains of people who had Alzheimer's disease are studied in an effort to identify how the disease damages the brain. This information, in turn, may identify regions (or chemicals) of the brain that are important for memory. (One of the characteristics of a person who has Alzheimer's disease is memory loss.) Similarly, the brain of a person who displayed distinct behavioral changes (for example, they become aggressive) after injury to his/her brain is sometimes studied after the person dies in an attempt to identify the parts of the brain that were damaged and, thereby, correlate damage to certain brain regions with certain behaviors. Some neuroscientists "lesion" (destroy) a part of the brain of a laboratory animal (such as a mouse or rat) and then determine what effect the lesion has on a particular behavior. For example, there are researchers who use this technique to identify the parts of the brain that are important for learning to fear something. This type of research has shown that a region of the brain called the amygdala plays an important role in fear. It is believed that the amygdala may play an important role in fear in humans. This brings up the important point that much of the information that has been gained from the study of the function of the brain in laboratory animals has proven to also describe the function of the human brain. Another technique that some investigators use is called electrical stimulation. In these studies, an electrical current is applied to brain and the effects on behavior or on the activity of a different brain region is determined. As is true for other areas of research in the biological sciences, neuroscientists are using the tools of genetic engineering to determine the function of a variety of molecules in the brain. Finally, during the last 20 years scientists have been able to "image" (to produce pictures of) the brain of living people. This is an extremely exciting area of research that is providing a wealth of information about the brain and also proving to be a major advance in the diagnosis of a variety of brain disorders.. You may have heard about one or more of these techniques: Computed Tomography Scan (CT Scan), Positron Emission Tomography (PET), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). For a description of the techniques used to image the brain see: http://faculty.wash ington.edu/chudler/image.html I hope that I have stimulated your interest enough to read more about the neurosciences. Keep asking questions! Neuroscience research is full of opportunities for questioning minds.
Try the links in the MadSci Library for more information on Neuroscience.