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Neuroscience and the brain

Neuroscience examines the structure and function of the human brain and nervous system. Neuroscientists use cellular and molecular biology, anatomy and physiology, human behavior and cognition, and other disciplines, to map the brain at a mechanistic level.

Humans have an estimated hundred billion neurons, or brain cells, each with about a thousand connections to other cells. One of the great challenges of modern neuroscience is to map out all the networks of cell-to-cell communication—the brain circuits that process all thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The resulting picture, emerging bit by bit, is known as "the connectome." The ability of the brain to elaborate new connections and neuronal circuits—neuroplasticity—underlies all learning.

Biology and psychology unite in the field of neuroscience, to tackle questions such as the brain’s role in pain perception or the underlying cause of Parkinson’s disease. Computer simulations, imaging, and other tools give researchers and medical experts new insight into the physical anatomy of the brain, its five million kilometers of wiring, and its relationship to the rest of the mind and body.

How Neuroscience Helps Us Understand the Mind and Brain

Just as computers are hard-wired with electrical connections, the brain is hard-wired with neural connections. These connections link together its various lobes and also link sensory input and motor output with the brain’s message centers, allowing information to come in and be sent back out.

One major aim of current neuroscience research, then, is to study how this wiring works and what happens when it's damaged. New developments in brain scanning allow researchers to see more detailed images and determine not only where there may be damage but also how that damage affects, for instance, motor skills and cognitive behavior in conditions like multiple sclerosis and dementia.

A rapidly expanding discipline, neuroscience findings have grown by leaps and bounds over the past half-century. More work, however, will always be needed to fully understand the neural roots of human behavior, consciousness, and memory.

Areas of the brain

The human brain, as the seat of mental life—from the most complicated intellectual processes down to routine and unconscious bodily control—is necessarily enormously complex.

The largest part of the brain is the highly-evolved cerebrum. The topmost portion is divided into two hemispheres, each with four lobes, within which are many other subdivisions. The cerebral cortex forms the outer layer of the cerebrum. Nested deeper within the brain are essential structures such as the basal ganglia, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. Toward the bottom of the brain are more primitive structures, including the cerebellum and brain stem. These also fulfill critical functions.

Running through parts of the brain are a dozen pairs of cranial nerves, which link the brain directly to muscles and sense organs in the head, neck, and upper body. The brain also contains four interconnected spaces called ventricles, which produce and are filled with cerebrospinal fluid. This fluid is distributed to the exterior of the brain and to the spinal cord, where it provides a cushion against physical impact and helps maintain normal function.

The brain and spinal cord together form the body’s command structure: the central nervous system. The peripheral nervous system extends body-wide, encompassing nerves that branch out from the spinal cord and the brain.




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