7 Fascinating facts about neuroscience and the brain: How well do you know your brain?

What is neuroscience?

What if you could help transform people's health and well-being worldwide? Neuroscience is an exciting and rapidly growing field that studies the nervous system's structure and how it functions. Neuroscientists combine biology and psychology to explore the brain's impact on behavior, cognitive function, and memory. By studying and understanding how the nervous system works, researchers strive to find ways to treat or prevent disorders affecting the brain, nervous system, and body, including addiction, dementia, Down syndrome, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and schizophrenia.

7 Intriguing neuroscience facts

The brain is intricate, complex, and powerful. Keeping it active and strong is critical to your physical and emotional health. Here are seven fascinating facts about the nervous system that will help you better understand yourself and your brain.

1. The brain needs to forget to function properly

The next time your friend or partner chastises you for forgetting something important, let them know your brain is just functioning correctly. As you can imagine, you will create countless memories throughout your life, many of which you will eventually forget. And if you were to remember every excruciating detail of your existence—such as that embarrassing moment in elementary school—it would not be great for your mental well-being.

A new theory highlighted in Nature Reviews Neuroscience postulates that the brain learns to forget less relevant memories because it allows people to interact more flexibly with the environment, make better decisions, and improve well-being. Rather than the previously prevailing assumption that memory loss occurs over time as a dysfunction of the brain, this theory views forgetting as a functional feature.

In NEUR 1000: Introduction to Neuroscience at Penn LPS Online, you'll obtain an overview of the structure and function of the vertebrate nervous system. You'll start by studying the nerve cell, move on to investigating the anatomy of the central nervous system, tackle the sensory systems, including smell, hearing, vision, and pain sensations, and finish the course by investigating the function of the motor systems and the autonomic nervous system.

2. The brain doesn't stop developing until age 25

The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord. The spinal cord comprises a bundle of nervous tissue and support cells that send messages from the brain to the rest of your body. But did you know that, on average, the spinal cord ceases growing at four years of age?

And while the brain may be done growing by your teenage years, it is not considered fully developed until your mid-to-late 20s. That's because the prefrontal cortex, responsible for planning, prioritizing, and impulse control, is one of the final regions of the organ to mature. This helps explain why teens are more likely to make poor decisions and engage in potentially harmful behaviors without considering the short or long-term risks involved.

Additionally, once your brain is fully developed, it may become more difficult to accept new ideas and change behavior. Although the reasoning isn't completely understood, research has shown that while adolescents see increases in social vitality and openness measures, these decrease with age. However, conscientiousness and emotional stability were observed to increase in people from ages 20-40 years. The good news is that you have the power to consciously choose to be open as you grow older, whether that's to opinions, people, or learning.

3. Neurons are programmed to do different things

Think of the nervous system as your body's internal command center, including the body's nerve cells which gather information from the body's five senses. The brain then analyzes sensory cues, such as a particular smell or taste, to determine what's happening internally and externally. This allows you to interact with your environment, control your body functions, and stay safe.

There are four different types of neurons. Sensory neurons transport electrical signals from parts of your body, such as the muscles, glands, and skin, to the central nervous system. At the same time, motor neurons deliver signals from your central nervous system to the outer parts of your body. Receptor neurons take in the sound, light, touch, and chemicals in the environment around you and convert them into energy that is carried by your sensory neurons. And interneurons serve as intermediaries delivering messages amongst neurons.

The functioning of the nervous system is truly a marvel. But unfortunately, sometimes things do go wrong. In NEUR 4000: Psychopharmacology, you'll learn about drugs used to treat central nervous system dysfunction, including neurodegenerative diseases and psychiatric diagnoses. In this course, you'll also examine strategies, techniques, and challenges of psychopharmacological research and how drugs are used to investigate neural substrates of behavior as you participate in advanced discussions of topics specific to the field.

4. Your body has two types of nervous systems

Now that you're familiar with the central nervous system, located in the nerves of the skull and vertebral canal of the spine, it's worth noting the rest of the nerves in the body are found in the peripheral nervous system. In addition to the two parts of the nervous system, there are two different types of nervous systems: voluntary and involuntary.

The former, known as the somatic nervous system, controls everything you are aware of and can consciously control, such as opening your hand to catch a ball, turning your head to get a better view, or tapping your foot to your favorite song. The latter, known as the autonomic nervous system, powers all body processes you don't consciously control, such as breathing, heart rate, or metabolism.

In NEUR 2800: Autonomic Pharmacology, you'll discover how the central nervous system regulates peripheral tissue activity to maintain homeostasis in the body. As you learn how outflow from the autonomic nervous system affects glucose levels, blood pressure, and ingestive behavior, such as eating or drinking, you'll apply that knowledge to understand how classes of drugs that treat diabetes, hypertension, and other conditions work.

5. The brain is often misunderstood

It's a myth that you only use 10% of your brain. Rather, neuroscience confirms that the brain is always active and firing even when you're sleeping. Another common fallacy is that brain size determines how smart you are. Intelligence is determined by the number of synapses (or connections) between brain cells, not by brain girth.

You may have heard that right-brained people are more creative and artistic, while those who are left-brained are more methodical and analytical. However, researchers from the University of Utah have debunked the idea that people favor one side of the brain over the other.

Another prevailing myth is that the brain breaks down with age. Although some cognitive functions, such as memory, may decline as you get older, other mental skills, such as comprehension, vocabulary, conflict resolution, and emotional regulation, can improve. And research has shown that when the elderly keep their minds active by exercising their brains with crossword puzzles or games like Sudoku and bingo, their intelligence may also increase.

Finally, contrary to what many students believe, the brain does not work better under pressure. Although the stress of a looming deadline may feel like it provides motivation, it is more likely to impair your brain performance. So, do your brain a favor: give yourself time, and plan ahead.

6. Music offers many brain benefits

Have you ever wondered why listening to your favorite songs boosts your mood? The answer is that music lights up your brain's reward parts and releases the feel-good chemicals dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine release may also help improve your memory because your brain creates a positive connection between a memory (or a piece of information) and the song you are listening to. So, don't delay in creating that study playlist.

Listening to music can also help lessen the production and release of the stress hormone cortisol, lowering blood pressure and heart rate and improving cognition. And music may also have the power to heal the brain, particularly in people with brain damage, brain injury, or stroke. The left side of the brain processes language, and the right side of the brain processes music; consequently, music therapy can help bridge the gap and create new neurological pathways to improve speech and language comprehension.

Research has revealed that the brain waves of two musicians can synchronize when they perform—even when they play two different parts. In NEUR 1600: The Neuroscience of Music, you'll explore the biological mystery of why all human cultures have music and what accounts for the common threads running through melodies worldwide. By studying the auditory system and thinking about neurobiological foundations, you'll gain insight into musical universals, consonance and dissonance, scale structure, music theory, and more.

7. Three different brain circuits help you make decisions

The ability to make decisions is likely more complicated than scientists initially believed. Rather than being confined to the orbital frontal cortex of the brain, the site of higher order thinking, Yale researchers have found that three distinct circuits connect the frontal cortex to deep parts of the brain to make good choices or bad choices and to determine which past decisions to store in memory.

For example, if you are deciding whether or not to go on a second date, one brain circuit is activated if your first date was pleasant. A different circuit is triggered if the date was less than desirable. A third circuit is responsible for recording the good and bad memories of your experience. Information from all three circuits will then influence the decision that you make.

The same Yale researchers found that some brain calculations were disrupted in animals given methamphetamine. As a result, scientists now believe that changes to these circuits could help explain certain aspects of substance abuse, such as why people continue to make unhealthy choices after repeated negative experiences. Eventually, these findings in animals could be helpful in the search for new treatments for addictions in humans.

In NEUR 2000: Behavioral Neuroscience at Penn LPS Online, you'll explore the neurobiological basis for animal behavior and discover how it may provide insight into human actions. In this comparative course, you'll examine behavior from an evolutionary and ecological context focusing on the neural processes that allow animals to perform essential activities such as finding mates or prey. You'll also strive to identify common motor and sensory processing principles and brain function.

Why earn a Certificate in Neuroscience?

In the 4-course Certificate in Neuroscience at Penn LPS Online, you'll have the opportunity to examine biological, psychological, and clinical approaches to understand the nervous system as the organic basis for behavior.

This Ivy League program covers neurochemistry, neuroendocrinology, and pharmacology to gain insight into behavior processes, focusing on mental health perception, social behavior, and the effect of drugs on the central nervous system. You'll also learn how to critically evaluate research strategies and hypotheses in neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and related fields to comprehend psychiatric disorders from a biological perspective.

The skills you obtain in this certificate program may be applied to a variety of professional paths in healthcare, research, educational, pharmaceutical, and clinical settings. Potential career options include hospital administrator, research coordinator, medical records manager, lobbyist, and management consultant.

Ready to get serious about neuroscience?

Apply to Penn LPS Online today and register for the Certificate in Neuroscience. Or view our course guide to see the full range of what's available in any upcoming term.


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