The term neuroscience has been given significant press in the last few days because of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shootings. I was fascinated with the reference for two reasons: first, it was the field of study of James Holmes, the alleged movie massacre shooter; and secondly, it was a term I had used last week while writing the rough draft of this week’s blog. The coincidence was unnerving since that blog was to continue my theme of the last few weeks concerning the question, “Why do people kill?”
Because of the events in Colorado and the alleged killer’s field of study, I decided to delay that blog and instead focus a discussion on the study of neuroscience. Essentially, it’s the study of the nervous system. Typically, neuroscience is studied in the biology departments of universities, and still is interchangeably called neurobiology. But there are subtle differences between the two. Neurobiology includes only the biological makeup of the nervous system, whereas neuroscience encompasses the entire science of the nervous system.
For that reason, neuroscience is currently considered an interdisciplinary field of study: a collaboration of chemistry, computer science, math, engineering, physics, medicine, linguistics, philosophy and psychology.
The study of the nervous system is an old science, dating back to ancient Egypt where archeologists have uncovered evidence of trepanation, or the surgical drilling and/or scraping a hole into the skull. Evidence indicates those procedures were used to cure headaches and various mental disorders.
A brief biology lesson might be useful, however, before delving into this science any further. The nervous system is divided into two parts: the central nervous system (CNS) composed of the brain and spinal cord; and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), those nerves in our limbs and organs that create sensations and feelings.
The human brain has about a 100 billion neurons (those cells that process and transmit bits of information via electrical and chemical means), and about a 100 trillion synapses (those structures between neuron cells that pass electrical and chemical signals between those neurons and to other cells).
The field of neuroscience initiated as cellular neuroscience; that is, studying how neurons process signals and that progressed to the study of how the nervous system develops.
An exciting new field of study is cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. This aspect of neuroscience addresses how human cognition and emotions are mapped to specific neurons, and it speaks to the questions of how psychological functions are produced by neural activity. This has led to a new branch of social and behavioral science addressing such questions as decision theories and the brain’s response to environmental stimuli (external triggers), as well as how to alter and repair abnormalities.
James Holmes was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado Medical Campus/Aurora in an emerging field called educational neuroscience and, according to news broadcasts, had secured a federal grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Both the NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF) fund research into best practices regarding teaching and learning neuroscience concepts.
The grant that Holmes won was to focus on training outstanding neuroscientists who were expected to make significant contributions to the study of neurobiology. Although he failed his preliminary exam, he had a chance to improve his grade with a subsequent oral exam but instead voluntarily withdrew from the program after his poor performance, without further explanation.
As authorities search for the reason(s) why this man allegedly chose to embark on a killing spree, I find it ironic that in the years to come, he could have been one of the scientists helping to answer the very question, “Why do people kill?”