What is neuroscience? In a nutshell, the study of neuroscience encompasses the physical and functional workings of the human brain and nervous system, drawing from a mix of cellular and molecular biology, anatomy, physiology, human behavior, and cognition. This field remains in a state of near-constant evolution, as the brain does not easily give up its secrets. Although the brain is home to a hundred billion neurons (brain cells), with nearly a quadrillion connections linking them, we have yet to fully and deeply understand the full breadth of a single cell.
But when and how did neuroscience originate? We know that as far back as 7,000 years ago, healers were boring holes into the skulls of their companions, a process known as trepanation. One can imagine the grim determination these ancients exhibited in their efforts to understand and relieve suffering, even if it was only with the intent of exorcising evil spirits. And it’s harder still to imagine how boring into someone’s living skull without anesthesia could possibly offer any measurable relief from suffering. However misguided these ministrations were, it’s clear that even millennia ago, the brain was recognized as an organ of great physiological significance.
For centuries, conventional wisdom recognized the heart as the seat of human consciousness. The Greek physician Hippocrates challenged this hypothesis, believing the brain to be the center of intelligence, yet the heart continued to hold sway with physicians and healers until long beyond Hippocrates’ time. This view persisted until the Roman physician Galen consistently observed that brain injuries sustained by gladiators often resulted in a marked decrease in cognition and mental acuity. (These injuries possibly foreshadowed today’s phenomenon of NFL CTE injuries.) Gradually, the brain began to take its rightful place in the pantheon of human physiology.
During medieval and Renaissance times, continuing important discoveries about the brain helped lay the foundation of what would become modern neuroscience, much of this new knowledge gleaned through illicit dissections, or by examining the brains of executed criminals. It’s safe to say that much scientific discovery—including that of human physiology—was hobbled by the religious constraints of the day. It wasn’t until the late 18th century, when Luigi Galvani observed the electrical activity of muscles and neurons, that key indicators about brain function became more apparent. Observations during this period often raised more questions than answers, however.
The 19th century brought further advances in the study of the brain and nervous system, notably by Emil du Bois-Reymond, who successfully demonstrated the electrical properties of nerve signals, and Paul Broca, who discovered through his pioneering work with brain-damaged patients that different regions of the brain were responsible for specific functions. This was later borne out by the German anatomist Korbinian Brodmann, who mapped the human cortex into 52 distinct areas, along with their corresponding functions.
In the 20th century, and particularly since the 1950s, neuroscience has evolved into an increasingly wide-ranging discipline, incorporating the brain and nervous system on a molecular level. This gave rise to many different types of neuroscience, which include affective, behavioral, molecular, cellular, clinical, computational, and a great many more. As the study of neuroscience has progressed, this field has produced no fewer than 19 Nobel Prize Laureates between 1904 and 2017. Neuroscience encompasses the most complex and sophisticated organ system in the body, a system that may possibly never be fully understood and certainly will continue to present wonders and challenges for centuries to come.
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